Rice’s national champion Speech and Debate team racks up more than 60 awards this semester

The wins include overall sweepstakes at the NPDA national championships and placing in the team’s first international competition

Rice Speech and Debate champions
Rice speech and debate champs
The in-person NPDA tournament hosted by the University of Utah was a full-circle moment for Rice’s speech and debate team as the 2020 NPDA marked the beginning of COVID-19 measures. (Photo provided by David Worth)

March marked a busy and successful month for Rice Speech and Debate, which clinched the National Parliamentary Debate Association (NPDA) National Championship Sweepstakes and achieved an unprecedented feat at the International Forensics Association (IFA) in Dublin, Ireland. The team boasts an impressive tally of 62 awards so far this semester.

“It’s a strong team,” said David Worth, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and director of the George R. Brown Forensics Society. “We have hard-working students and a great tradition with a lot of alumni involvement.”

Rice’s competitors have honed their advocacy prowess, participating in regional, national and international tournaments. They engaged in spirited competition and mutual learning alongside peers from colleges and universities across the educational spectrum.

“Like in so many other walks of life, we and the rest of the teams are rebuilding after the COVID-19 lockdowns,” Worth said.

Virtual events began during the 2020 NPDA National Championship Tournament, which Worth recalled starting as an in-person competition, evolving quickly into remote events.

“As president of the NPDA, I did the awards at the end alone in an auditorium, but everyone else was in individual classrooms with their teams as we streamed it,” Worth said.

Maximus Renteria
Rice senior Maximus Renteria (second from right) is part of a very small number of debaters who have reached the NPDA finals twice in their careers. He did so in 2024, as well as in 2022, when this photo was taken. (Photo provided by Maximus Renteria)

The years that followed tested the team, which had to adapt to remote competition, eliminating the energy of an audience or the excitement of a visit to a new host site.

“It was very challenging. Some of the new people we had early on, it was understandably difficult for them to hang on,” Worth said.

The only student from that 2020 recruiting class who did stay was Maximus Renteria, now a senior majoring in managerial economics and organizational sciences.

“My first interaction with the debate team was with Shannon (LaBove) at the academic fair,” Renteria said. “I talked with her and immediately loved her. She had just the right vibe. I didn't care how hard it was going to be; I knew that I was going to succeed on this team no matter what.”

With the rest of his team, he weathered virtual practices his freshman year. Sophomore year, he finally got to meet a teammate in person: debate partner Jacob Tate, whom Renteria credits with teaching him the ropes. Together, they won the 2022 NPDA title.

“It was so exciting to be in the next classroom listening to Max and Jacob when they were virtual,” said LaBove, lecturer in the School of Humanities and the associate director of the program. “I would be shocked if they didn’t hear us over Zoom yelling.”

“The experience was honestly quite fun,” Renteria said. “Although we didn’t get to travel, we always made the best of what we had. We had many picnics and we had a lot of laughs when we competed virtually in the humanities building. We all saw a lot of success that year with the whole team winning the sweepstakes at the national tournament.”

Rice speech and debate champs
Renteria (second from left) and sophomore Arjun Surya placed second to a team from University of California, Berkeley at the 2024 NPDA championship. (Photo provided by Max Renteria)

Along with sophomore Arjun Surya, Renteria returned to the final round of NPDA competition in 2024, placing him among a very small number of debaters who have reached the finals twice in their careers. Rice won 31 separate debates at this year’s NPDA, securing first place for overall tournament sweepstakes and varsity division season sweepstakes. The in-person tournament hosted by the University of Utah was a full-circle moment for Rice’s team as the 2020 NPDA marked the beginning of COVID-19 measures.

“I will always have different respect for competitors that competed in person and for those that competed virtually,” Renteria said. “Getting to actually talk to the competitors and debaters gives me a new respect for them that I’m unable to experience virtually just because I’m not able to know them as closely. However, I did also have a great respect for competitors who also competed virtually because it’s quite hard to do.”

As lockdowns waned and some tournaments resumed in-person competition, speech and debate students had to learn their events in two exceedingly different formats. On-camera, LaBove explained, she would teach the Rice students about how nuanced the performance needed to be, how every sound mattered. Alternatively, in-person coaching focused on the big-room setting and audience reaction.

“It definitely was a challenge that I’m super proud of our students for taking on because it really did make them learn things twice,” LaBove said.

For her efforts over more than two decades, LaBove was recently recognized for her excellence in service to the NPDA tournament and community, receiving the Brent Northup Distinguished Service Award.

“After the COVID-19 lockdowns, I don’t know that we look the same as coaches as we did,” LaBove said. “Growth and change are some of the basic tenets of communication that we put forward, and I think COVID really helped us to look at how we do those things.”

Both LaBove and Worth suggest the team is stronger and equipped with more tools now than it was pre-2020 as evidenced by its exceptional performance this year. That includes Rice junior Pranav Nagajothi placing fifth in varsity extemporaneous speaking at the IFA competition in Dublin.

Rice speech and debate champs
Pranav Nagajothi (far right) finished fifth in varsity extemporaneous speaking at the International Forensics Association tournament held in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo provided by David Worth)

“Rice has a commitment to international education and to look at things from a worldview that really impacts students,” LaBove said. “We agreed to try internationals this year and went in with very low competitive expectations simply because we had never experienced the tournament before. Next thing we knew, we have the fifth-best extemporaneous speech competitor in the world.”

“Competing internationally was super cool,” Nagajothi said. “It was great to be able to go sightseeing, try local food and just experience Irish culture while we were there.”

The accomplishment set a high bar for Nagajothi, who says he hasn’t developed goals for next year beyond doing the best he can at tournaments while spending time with his teammates.

“I learn a ton through competitions and watching other people's speeches, but it’s definitely the people on the team who’ve drawn me in the most,” Nagajothi said. “They make it a ton of fun.”

He will be back on the team next year as will Surya and many of this year’s other winning teammates, including Kyle Sanderfer, William Wang, Anna Phan, Rohan Gupta, Nikki Stancik, Kevin Barry, Maya Adhikari, Chloe Pesqueira and Daijah Wilson.

“It’s a young team; we’re only graduating a couple of seniors,” Worth said. “We still have speech nationals to do in April, but I am already so excited about next year.”

To learn more about Rice Speech and Debate, click here.