Rice senior debate team places 2nd in nation

David Worth named debate Coach of the Year after Owls’ successful run

On recent consecutive weekends, two Rice University seniors teamed to finish second at the National Parliamentary Tournament of Champions (NPTE) at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the Rice debate squad as a whole took third place in the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) National Championship Tournament at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Photo of Rice Debate team

Rice Debate team

Debate team captain Sonia Torres and Jason Barton, who have been on the squad each of their four years at Rice, were defeated in the March 23 finals by a team from the University of California, Berkeley, a week after the overall Rice team’s third-place showing in Utah. The 10-member squad competes at tournaments throughout the country.

“This incredible accomplishment caps an outstanding year and career for the two seniors who regularly appeared in elimination rounds, brought home multiple speaker awards and were regarded by many as the smartest team in the nation,” said David Worth, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities, director of forensics and Rice Speech and Debate coach.

Torres and Barton are the first Rice team to reach the finals at the NPTE, placing them among the top few pairs in the program’s storied history.

“This is rare,” Worth said. “We’ve had a lot of great debaters and we’ve had a lot of successful teams but getting to the finals is kind of like sports. You need a lot of talent, a lot of hard work and then in the end you need a few things to go your way.”

Torres and Barton reached the finals after winning 19 ballots in preliminary rounds and fighting through six elimination rounds.

Sonia Torres

Sonia Torres

“We spent our senior year scoring among the top seven teams in the nation, often going nearly undefeated in preliminary rounds, only to hit an impenetrable semifinals barrier,” said Torres, who will move to the West Coast after graduation for a job as a researcher at Stanford University’s Center on Poverty and Inequality and its American Voices Project. “Jason and I reached our senior nationals resolved to change this but keenly aware of the possibility that our dream might go unfulfilled. I am so unbelievably proud that we achieved this goal at the last possible round of our almost decade-long debate careers.”

Worth said that for Torres and Barton, the team’s program worked the way it should. “They gradually gained in experience and complexity over the past four years and at the end they debated the best they ever have,” he said.

“In terms of my academic development, debate has been invaluable,” Barton said. “At a fundamental level, I have learned how to construct arguments, write persuasively and develop nuanced counterarguments. These skills are translatable to any context. At a more abstract level, I found a home for philosophical exploration in collegiate debate. As someone who is pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy, I can wholeheartedly say that my philosophical outlook has been irrevocably defined by participating in debate.”

Torres and Barton took on complex issues leading to their finals appearance, where they debated Cal Berkeley on settler colonial theory and post-raciality.

Jason Barton

Jason Barton

“They’re both special people who have really put the work in,” Worth said. “The great thing about them is that they took advantage of our structure but they also committed and did the work to grow themselves. They went from hesitant first-years to absolute command of the material and the activity.

For Worth’s commitment and efforts, the NPTE board named him its National Coach of the Year.

“It was so unexpected; it’s a huge honor,” he said. “I was chosen by my peers, people who themselves are incredible coaches … very successful coaches. I am truly honored.”

Worth’s award wasn’t a surprise to Torres and Barton.

“As a student in his rhetoric and communication classes, I see him masterfully make connections between difficult texts and daily life, enriching the learning process for all of his students,” Torres said. “I am forever thankful to him for choosing to accept me to the debate program four years ago, despite the fact I did not come from a decorated high school program or experience, and I can think of no one more deserving of the 2019 Coach of the Year award.”

“Beyond his personal sacrifices, he has single-handedly taught and mentored the majority of debaters and debate coaches on the collegiate circuit, which demonstrates his unending, altruistic commitment to the community at large,” Barton said. “He has provided indispensable guidance for honing our skills, developing our arguments and adopting a healthy attitude toward the activity, and he has fostered an inclusive, welcoming, fun and exciting environment in which the team has thrived. He is the glue that holds the team together.”

The Rice Debate and Speech team is housed in the School of Humanities and also coached by Shannon LaBove, lecturer in humanities and associate director of forensics.

About David Ruth

David Ruth is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.