Team remains optimistic despite COVID-19 bringing their powerful season to an abrupt end, as nationals may be canceled
By Stella Katsipoutis-Varkanis
When the Lafayette Forensics Society competed in the Pennsylvania Forensics Association Championship Tournament at Wilkes University Feb. 15 and 16, they didn’t just win—they dominated.
“Lafayette College earned 383.5 cumulative points,” says Scott Placke, director of forensics activities, who has coached the team since 2000. “Let me put that into perspective: The second-place team got a total of 151 points. That’s more than two and a half times the points that second place had.”
At the competition, which Placke likens to a multisport event, the team flexed its speech and debate muscle as team members went up against nine different colleges and universities from the state in various categories—including poetry interpretation, persuasive speaking, Lincoln-Douglas debates, and extemporaneous speaking, in which students must construct a speech on a topic given to them only 30 minutes prior to their presentation. Lafayette took home nine out of 13 first-place trophies. This is the third time, and second year in a row, the College has won the state tournament.
“I was in the room where all the scores were being tabulated, and I saw what the scores and rankings were before the students had the opportunity to see,” Placke says. “I actually had a pretty good idea that we were doing very well early on in the tournament because, honestly, our students were crushing it.”
A testament to their skills, two Lafayette students—Kelly Mwaamba and Scott Kamen—qualified to represent the state of Pennsylvania in the Interstate Oratorical Championship, the longest-running oratorical competition in the United States.
As the final tournament of the year in which the Forensics Society competes as a team before moving on to the more individually focused national season, the state championship holds a particularly special meaning and significance to both the students and their coaches.
“The reason I love it is because it’s one of the few times in the year that we come together as a full team, both speech and debate sides, before nationals, and you really get that you are part of something larger,” says Saeed Malami ’20, a computer science and government & law double major who was named top overall speaker at the tournament and took first place in several other events. “PFA is when you get to see what people have been doing and how incredibly talented they are.”
“I see it as a benchmark of how the team is functioning as a whole,” adds Placke. “The students get very enthusiastic about it. They really get along, they support each other, and they’ve worked very hard for this particular tournament. It’s a moment that we prepare for over the course of the entire year.”
And, according to Placke, this past year has been one of the most successful for the team since he started coaching.
“Performance-wise, this was the strongest team I’ve ever worked with,” he says. “One of the things that sets them apart is they started to work on their performances and writing their speeches back in the summer. I was working with them to develop their material before they ever set foot on campus, and so that meant that they were always ahead.”
Malami—who has been a member of the Forensics Society since his first year—is also thrilled about the team’s mounting strength, and is confident about their future success.
“The team has grown both in size and intention towards being competitive,” Malami says. “It’s a beautiful growth to witness. The team has had a fantastic year, and I’m so comfortable and happy leaving it in this state with the current underclassmen. I have no doubt that they will blow whatever is the current legacy out of the water and set new standards for the future. The kind of talent we have on the team, combined with the leadership from students, coaches, and the administration made all of this possible.”
Placke, who primarily trains students on speech, also credits the newly expanded coaching staff for the team’s stellar year. He works alongside John Boyer, debate coach and assistant director of forensics activities, as well as two newly added part-time remote coaches—Rahul Guha and Decker O’Donnell—who work with the students via Skype from across the country. Throughout the year, the four coaches support the students by helping them brainstorm ideas, conduct research, draft their speeches, perfect their performances, and more.
“It’s really about trying to build a relationship with the students to empower them to give voice to what they want to say, but then frame it in such a way that is palatable, understandable, and clear to an audience,” Placke says.
One of the most notable speeches of the tournament, according to Placke, was Malami’s performance for the prose event, in which students verbally present fictional material—such as a short story—that was not originally intended for performance. Malami selected a 4,000-year-old piece of African literature for his presentation.
“Saeed is an international student whose home country is Nigeria,” Placke says. “So, the two of us came up with the idea to look for the oldest piece of literature we could find from Africa. We found a piece of literature that predates the Greeks and the Greek philosophers. It’s about justice. It’s about wealth redistribution. It’s about economics, the poor, and the wealthy. A lot of the issues that still exist in today’s world. And Saeed took this ancient text and really made it come to life. He’s gotten several first-place trophies over the course of the year for it, and I had high expectations that it would make it through to the final round of the national tournament.”
Unfortunately, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the team’s journey to nationals this year may be cut short. While the national tournaments originally scheduled for March have been postponed until the end of May, and those scheduled for April are in limbo, the possibility still remains that all of the national events will be canceled depending on how the health crisis unfolds.
“The students and I had very high expectations when it came to the national tournaments, and we were expecting to do very well,” Placke says. “I think there was more than one student in more than one event that had very serious shots at national championships. There’s a very slim chance that they could be postponed again, but I’m doubtful. At some point you have to start moving into the next year. So, the hardest thing I think the students on the team are dealing with is that they didn’t know their last performance was going to be their last performance.”
“I cried a little when I first found out that the pandemic would possibly have the nationals canceled,” adds Malami, who won the national championship at the Interstate Oratorical Association last year. “It’s frustrating, to say the least. Other tournaments are incredible, but none quite push your full range of ability like nationals does. Nationals was supposed to be the stage for me to finally prove my mettle, both to myself and to my coach. It’s really sad that I may never get to do that. If it does [happen], though, we go and we battle, and I truly hope I can bring home another national championship.”
To help ease the students’ disappointment over the abrupt and uncertain end to the year, Ryan Lauth, director of the National Speech Championship, held an online exhibition on April 4 and 5 in which students from across the country were able to record their performances, have them uploaded to YouTube, and have them viewed by fellow students, coaches, alumni, and the general public. Six members of the Lafayette team participated in the online event, which was a first of its kind.
“It felt really cool to see people from all over the country commenting on speeches that our students had worked on,” Placke says. “It wasn’t a tournament, but it provided students—particularly seniors—with some closure.”
Another online exhibition, the 2020 National Forensics Association Performance of Distinction, is tentatively scheduled to take place in May.
Despite not having an ideal end to their powerful season, Lafayette’s Forensic Society and its coaches are already looking forward to what the next academic year will bring.
“I’ve already had several conversations and meetings online with students about next year’s performances and events,” Placke says. “They’ve already started coming to me with ideas and getting performances ready. Everyone is excited about it.”