HomeLocal Student Among Top Debaters in Nation

Local Student Among Top Debaters in Nation

Photo courtesy Burbank High School speech and debate team
Burbank High School’s speech and debate team includes (front row, from left) Sungjoo Yoon and Areg Hovhannisyan. Second row: Sean Cuevas, Aviah Priestley, Liliana Martirosyan, Mihika Chechi and Kacey Fifield. Back: assistant coach Brandon Batham, coach Jason Lohr, Vahe Tovmasian, Alexis Bell, Emma Robert-Larkin and Mane Moravia.

A Burbank High School student has been ranked second in California by the National Speech and Debate Association, and also scored highly in the recent countrywide tournament.

After making it to the final round in a category known as congressional debate in the NSDA tournament last week, rising junior Sungjoo Yoon also achieved a ranking of 48th nationally in that type of event. He ranked 14th nationally for all event types, having performed well in parliamentary debate. In California, the NSDA ranks Yoon second overall and seventh for congressional debate.

Yoon expects his rankings to rise after the summer, when the NSDA removes graduating high school seniors from its records. Then, Yoon will likely be in first place statewide for both congressional debate and all event types, 11th place nationally for congressional debate and fourth place nationally for all event types.

About 6,670 high school students participated in the virtual national tournament, according to NSDA marketing communications specialist Grace Rogers.

Despite having competed in about 50 events, Yoon acknowledged that speaking in the final round of the tournament — even virtually — was a daunting task.

“I’m very fluid in the way I debate, but [with] that level of a round, I was still nervous,” he said. “I was sitting there thinking about what I was going to say, and I was unsure about myself, but I tried to do as well as I could.”

Due in part to Yoon’s competitive success, the NSDA also recently named Burbank High a Debate School of Honor, a recognition awarded to the top 21-40 schools that received the most debate points in the nation. It’s a title BHS hadn’t received, said the school’s speech and debate coach, Jason Lohr, since at least 2014, when he started his role. About 1,420 schools were represented in the national tournament.

“I remember like five years ago, we were not winning very much. The motivation just wasn’t there,” said Lohr, who also teaches English at BHS. “And little by little, it’s grown and gotten better and improved, and last year and this year we made a huge leap.”

Photo courtesy Burbank High School
Burbank High School student Sungjoo Yoon has seen significant success in his debate tournaments, ranking 14th nationally in the National Speech and Debate Association.

Lohr praised Yoon’s drive and assistance in managing and fundraising for the team. The 16-year-old joined the group when he was in the 9th grade, having been recruited after an evidently notable performance at the John Muir Middle School speech competition in 8th grade. Yoon fell in love with the activity, he said, particularly congressional debate — a style that involves student-written bills and discussion somewhat similar to that held in the U.S. Congress.

Since joining, Yoon has become the president and captain of the team, which has about 20 members who compete consistently, and credits his teammates’ dedication for the group’s recent successes.

Other members of the team who participated in this year’s national championship include Areg Hovhannisyan, who ranked 34th in California for congressional debate, and speech duo Liliana Martirosyan and Aviah Priestley.

“This was our strongest season in probably over 10 years,” Lohr said.

It was also a season impacted — like the team’s curricular activities — by the coronavirus pandemic. Speech and debate teams ordinarily fly their members to state and national tournaments, but this year the events were held virtually.

However, there were some benefits to the change, Yoon said. Ordinarily, travel costs would prevent BHS’ team from attending many tournaments. With that barrier gone, he and his teammates could compete more often, something he described as a welcome distraction from the pandemic.

“The general consensus in the debate community … is that virtual debate, it was an equalizer for a lot of students,” Yoon explained. “The virtual debate format, obviously it might not be as engaging as being in person, but it did offer students that might not have historically been able to access these resources a chance.”

He plans to continue with the team next year, and said he’s interested in pursuing the activity in college. According to his coach, if he does stay in debate for the remainder of his time at BHS, he’ll be a serious threat to other competitors.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see him [become] national or state champion,” Lohr said.

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