GREEN RIVER — In the spring of 2020, members of the Jackson Hole High School Broncs speech and debate team hopped on a bus to Rock Springs for the annual 4A State Tournament. Following a COVID-19 outbreak, their season was put to an end — just hours before competition — with no forewarning.
Two years later — following a 2020 season that was held completely virtually — the team is back off their computers and onto the stage for competition. Two tournaments into the season, the athletes are glad to be back to relative normalcy.
“The number one thing [we missed] is the collaboration with some of the other team members from other schools,” senior captain Carter Worcester said.
Competing on Zoom, the athletes could communicate with other competitors through direct message, but it wasn’t the same. Speech and debate is built on communication and the sport looked much different as a fully remote competition.
“There’s just not the same kind of competitive air to be able to bounce questions off your opponents, or team up with people on the same side as you in the [Student] Congress round,” Worcester said.
“At its core, speech and debate is a lot about communication and connecting with someone,” senior captain Will Aepli said. “It’s not something that’s judged on and it’s not something that can be judged objectively ... it’s all about the judge’s opinion. When you can see that judging person, it’s easier to figure out their emotions from their body language … all their subtle cues about how you should be improving.”
The team just finished up its second full competition of the season, with a third-place finish in the team sweepstakes at the Green River tournament, finishing behind Evanston and Natrona County in 4A. The team is fairly young, but reaps the benefits of quality leadership from several upperclassmen. While there’s plenty of room to grow, the team feels like they’re just getting started.
Head coach Londe Gagnon has once again implemented a mentorship program, pairing novices with upperclassmen who take them under their wing. The mentors help with everything from finding hotel rooms to explaining debate technicalities, and have been a cornerstone of the program’s success during the past decade.
Novices — first-year debaters — were put behind the eight ball last season, without an opportunity to get on the stage in front of judges. Because of this, the role of the captains this season has been more significant than in years past.
Competition aside, the program allows students the opportunity to bond with teens who they wouldn’t otherwise during school, which can lead to lifelong friendships.
“I think I not only would not have grown, I don’t think I would have survived in the speech world without the help of some of those seniors and juniors that led me along,” Worcester said.
“Our captains every year try to emphasize the community aspect of our team,” Aepli said. “You’re not just teammates, but you’re also friends.”
A strong host of underclassmen has opened doors for freshmen and seniors to compete together. Worcester, a senior Bronc, paired up with freshman Case Meaney last weekend, who went on to finish in third place in Public Forum Debate.
Even with a young team, Worcester can see the progress of his squad, considering there were team members whose first experience on stage was this past weekend.
“I also saw not just personal success, but the success of everyone else on the team … novice or not, it was astounding,” Worcester said. “That’s been something that’s made me super happy too, not just from a senior captain’s perspective, but a fellow member of the team.”
Worcester — who also competes as an individual — finished in first place in Congressional Debate, with fellow senior captain Lily Briggs right behind him in second.
Other novices to find success over the weekend were freshman Oscar Andersen, who finished in fifth-place in Novice Lincoln-Douglas debate, and freshmen Jasper Brandenburg and Ben Moffet, who finished fourth and sixth in Novice Congressional Debate.
Aepli, along with Briggs, teamed up to finish in first place in the Public Forum Debate.
While the ultimate goal for athletes in traditional team sports is often the opportunity to play collegiately, Gagnon sends numerous student-athletes into the real world in a much different capacity, giving them lifelong skills to help set them up in their respective professional fields.
“It’s a special kind of student that wants to go after school and do more academic work,” Gagnon joked. “A lot of the kids have ambitions of being lawyers, or political science majors and are into things like current events … they get really passionate about certain topics.”
Aside from helping them build an argument while writing their college essays, Gagnon believes the skills they acquire during competition goes much further.
“What’s really cool is that because they’re forced to debate both sides of it, it really helps them open their minds,” Gagnon said.
With the season officially in full swing, the team will continue to compete on Fridays and Saturdays throughout the winter. Up next for the team is a virtual event this weekend, hosted by the University of Wyoming.