Stratford debaters ranked tops in nation

Stratford debaters ranked tops in the nation

lfabian@macon.comNovember 16, 2012 

There’s no getting a word in edgewise when Andrew Jones and Hemanth Sanjeev rattle off their arguments in debate.

Except for an occasional gasp for air, the words come out with lightning speed. A casual observer is able to discern just a few phrases here and there.

Picture an auctioneer spouting political punditry. Judges train as debaters or coaches so they can keep up.

The top 15 debate coaches in the nation unanimously ranked Stratford Academy’s team of Jones and Sanjeev as No. 1 of the top 25 teams this year.

The team, which specializes in policy debate, swept its first competition by beating the top 15 teams in the country at the Greenhill Round Robin in Dallas, Texas, two months ago.

Jones, who is known as “Mr. Negative” for arguing the opposing point of view, was named the top speaker, with Sanjeev a close second as the “captain of the positive ship.”

In the past two decades, speed became a critical factor as the fastest talkers made more arguments -- some that went unanswered -- and were more likely to win.

Fast talking is only about 10 percent of what makes a great competitive debater, though.

Research is paramount, said Abby Schirmer, Stratford’s debate coach for the past five years.

Poring over pages of information for debates helps Sanjeev with schoolwork too.

“It improves reading comprehension,” said Sanjeev, a 16-year-old junior. “I read through thousands of documents for an argument, so it makes the reading for school easier.”

Jones, a 17-year-old senior, said the training helps him perform better on standardized tests.

“It teaches you to process information real quick, think on your feet and come up with new ideas on the fly,” Jones said.

Stratford has traditionally fared well in debate over the years.

The Stratford debate room is practically littered with trophies and plaques for the team’s success over the years, and more debate trophies line the school’s hallways.

This weekend, Stratford is competing in the largest debate tournament in the country.

The Glenbrooks competition near Chicago will draw 190 teams from as far as Hawaii and Alaska.

“We don’t compete locally. We don’t have a home game,” Schirmer said.

Jones and Sanjeev practice about 2 1/2 hours after school each day.

“This is a demanding extracurricular activity,” said Kathleen Medlin, Stratford’s director of institutional advancement. “Your competition is not someone you grew up across the street from. These are kids from all across the country.”

That doesn’t mean the team does not know its opponents. They study their competitors to better argue against them.

Jones spent Thursday afternoon scanning the Internet. His eyes locked on the computer screen while his fingers flew across the keyboard as he jotted down notes.

“I’m preparing a specific speech we’ll use against one of our competitors,” he said. “I know what they’ll say, so I’ve put together a couple of strategies.”

Debating has gone paperless, with laptops replacing large tubs of research documents that had to be carried into competition. The tubs now serve as a podium to bring computers closer to eye level.

Schirmer, who debated in high school and at Michigan State University, said it gets a little nerve-racking when the two practice simultaneously in the back seat of the car on the way to competition.

But, on the whole, it’s been an easy road coaching the pair who nearly went undefeated when Sanjeev was only in the eighth grade.

Last year, he became the first sophomore ever to argue in the Tournament of Champions, an event Stratford is expected to win for the first time this year.

Debaters often go on to law school or get a master’s degree in communications if they are interested in coaching, Schirmer said.

Sanjeev wants to pursue a career in medicine. Jones is leaning toward political science.

Perhaps he could become the next Nate Silver, a former champion debater from Michigan who is now a political analyst and blogger.

Silver’s research accurately predicted the state-by-state results of this month’s presidential election. He’s been touted as the most successful forecaster of the results.

Jones can’t yet predict where he’ll go to college, but he is being recruited by Harvard, Emory, Northwestern, Wake Forest, Georgetown and the University of Michigan.

Just like preparing for a debate, he’ll be doing lots of research and considering how the schools will be poised for debate competition.

“It’s going to be tough to choose,” he said.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.

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