By Dean Boerner | Editor-in-Chief

The Macken Debate and Speech Team after a big competition. (Courtesy of Macken Debate and Speech Team)

The most nationally competitive Saint Mary’s team might not be found on the field, court, track, or water, but in a classroom, honing their already topnotch debate skills.

Over the 2017-2018 academic year, the Macken Debate and Speech Team, named after its founder and benefactor, John Macken, has achieved as much success as any year since the team took its current form in 2002.

“This year, we made it to the top 32,” said Matthew Swanson, the team’s Director of Forensics, who is also a professor in the Communication department. “And we haven’t done that since my second year here about three years ago.”

Swanson, who took over for Cathy B. Glenn, the program’s Director of Forensics and head coach from 2006-2014, leads a team coming from a variety of majors and personal backgrounds.

Isabel Jeronimo ’20, a double major in Politics and Global Studies and minor in Spanish, debated in high school and did well enough to earn the attention of Swanson. “I actually lost the debate round [Swanson] watched,” said Jeronimo with a laugh. “I’m still here, so I guess it worked out well.”

The same goes for Maya Szafraniec, a third-year Biology major, who values the interplay of her major and the nature of debate. “A lot of the skills that I get advocating for things in debate help me to explain myself better in science.”

Both Szafraniec and Jeronimo help make up part of a core of talented competitors that excites Swanson for the success they have already brought and what they promise in 2018-2019. Teams of Jeronimo and Elisa Rapadas ’19, a psychology major, and Szafraniec and Marielle Gardner ’19, an Integral major, finished ranking 60th and 62nd in the country, respectively, in a ranking Swanson estimates to encompass about 1500 duos total.

“We do two types of debate right now,” explained Szafraniec. “One is called Parliamentary, which is where we get a topic 20 minutes before and write whatever we’re going to say during that 20 minutes. For that, the preparation is doing a lot of current events research.

“The other kind we do is Policy, where there’s the same topic for the whole year, and it’s an evidence-based debate, so there’s a lot of researching and application of new stuff to whatever argument you’re making.”

The season itself lasts from roughly August to early April, says Swanson, and the travel schedule compares to some of the most demanding of schedules for the College’s student-athletes.

“We travel more than most of the student-athletes on campus,” said Swanson, who went on to list a few of the team’s destinations that came to mind, like Portland, Seattle, Utah, and Colorado.

“We have to travel to basically all of our tournaments,” he said. “We try to send students to about 10 tournaments a year total, between fall and spring and nationals tournament,” said Swanson, assuring that there’s no expectation for students on the team to attend everything and adding that the team is “willing to have a lot more people if they want to join.”

Tom Muyunga-Mukasa ’20, a Politics major and Biology minor, counts as a newcomer.

Muyunga-Mukasa didn’t compete prior to coming to Saint Mary’s but has relished the opportunity the experience offers.

“For me, [the debate team] has been one of the contexts for which I am able to hear others talk about certain subjects, some of them very controversial.” Despite his relative lack of experience debating compared to others on the team, Muyunga-Mukasa managed to tally a win in the open division with his partner and, like Szafraniec, values the skills debating sharpens. “It’s important to learn how to structure, which you get in debate circles,” he said.

Looking ahead, Swanson anticipates even more success in 2018-2019 and hopes to attract more interested Saint Mary’s students to the team. “Next year is the big year where we think it’s going to happen,” he said.

Although his team finished in the top 32 this year, Swanson saw top eight as a possibility if only a few more things had gone their way.

The Saint Mary’s team barely lost to Washburn University, who ended up making it to the top four.

“I think next year we need to be thinking about winning the national championship,” said Swanson. “We have really good students that have spent a lot of time this year getting mentally and academically prepared for it, and we have students who are willing to sacrifice a lot of their own personal life so that they can make this one run.”

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