‘A force to be reckoned with’: La Jolla High School debate team argues its way to tournament wins

The La Jolla High School speech and debate team
The La Jolla High School speech and debate team (front row from left): advisor Zoë Fox, Inji Hamdoun, Elena Grilli, Sarah Lehman, Mira Lehman, Solaine Bardin, Daphnie Tseng and Arianna Roberts. Back row: Bridger Dunklee, Alexander Myers and Matthew Sauer.
(Courtesy of Daphne Tseng)

There can be little argument that the La Jolla High School speech and debate team is strong competition for other local teams. Several of its members participated in the San Diego Imperial Valley Speech League debate tournament on Oct. 23 at Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, winning most of their debates in the team’s first in-person event since February 2020.

The 12-hour tournament saw team members — grouped into varsity or novice — compete in five pairs, with each pair taking on four debates. In total, the La Jolla team won 13 debates and lost seven.

Paired up were novices and freshmen Mira and Sarah Lehman; novices Inji Hamdoun, a freshman, and Matthew Sauer, a junior; novices and freshmen Solaine Bardin and Elena Grilli; varsity members and juniors Daphne Tseng and Arianna Roberts; and varsity members and juniors Bridger Dunklee and Alexander Myers.

Neither Mira and Sarah nor Inji and Matthew lost a single debate.

Competing in the tournament was “really exciting,” said Daphne, the debate team president. “It was a really fun day.”

The team has “a lot of new freshmen who were really amazing,” she said. “They did such a great job representing the school.”

The entire team is “definitely a force to be reckoned with,” Daphne added.

Solaine, who previously had competed in debates only online, said “it was really good to be back in person.”

Sarah said debate tournaments typically consist of three to five rounds in front of judges (one judge per debate), covering topics handed out 20 minutes before each round.

The pairs use the 20 minutes to prepare. Use of phones and the internet is not allowed. “Everything has to come from your brain and through logic,” Daphne said.

She said the teams focus on “parliamentary debate, which is very impromptu.”

Mira said topics, also called resolutions, include matters such as whether all Americans should be given a monthly stimulus check or whether community college should be free for two years.

In the weeks leading to a tournament, team members engage in “lots of practice,” Solaine said.

The team holds a general meeting once a week, with additional practices twice a week at school and others on weekends, Daphne said.

“During tournaments especially, you realize that you really are one unit, even if you’re competing individually. So you form a lot of friendships in debate.”

— Mira Lehman

Sarah added that the teams practice resolutions that often come up, preparing ideas and concepts in advance.

Between practices, Solaine said, debate team members keep up with current events, “having the news notify [us] every morning about things that are happening.”

Resolutions often are based on recent events, so “just knowing what’s happening in the world and having a basic foundation of understanding about those is really helpful,” she said.

After pairs compete in a debate, the judge determines the winner, Mira said. “Speaker points” are awarded to individual debaters based on criteria such as “how well they can articulate their thoughts, their presentation, how strong their arguments are [and] how quickly they speak,” she added.

Debate is “so subjective and dynamic [it] makes it difficult,” Solaine said. “You have to tailor yourself to your opponent or your judge … because at the end of the day, [parliamentary debate] is a communication-based activity.”

“You have to just be able to appeal to a wide range of beliefs and ideas,” Sarah said.

Despite the process sometimes being “frustrating,” Solaine said “something I really enjoy about it is to be able to articulate your thoughts and also being able … to have an educated opinion” about current topics.

Daphne said she enjoys the sudden adrenaline rush she experiences “when you start creating your own arguments at the spot and when you create a counter argument.”

“It’s a roller coaster,” Solaine said.

Mira said she got involved with debate during the COVID-19 pandemic. “What better way to [spend] your time than to learn how to communicate effectively?”

“It’s also a way to connect with other people on your debate team,” she added. “During tournaments especially, you realize that you really are one unit, even if you’re competing individually. So you form a lot of friendships in debate, which is really important during the pandemic because those things are easily lost.”

The team is looking forward to several more tournaments in coming months, but in the meantime, it’s trying to interest students from Muirlands Middle School in debate.

“I think it’s such an important activity to the development of a person,” Sarah said.

Students at Muirlands or La Jolla High who are interested in learning more about the debate team can email