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Midvale Journal

Hillcrest sisters win state debate, qualify for national tournament

Jun 02, 2023 11:45AM ● By Julie Slama

Two Hillcrest High sisters have qualified for the 2023 National Speech & Debate Tournament.

Senior Sofia Moeinvaziri and her sister, Sara, a junior, earned a spot to compete in public forum debate June 11-16 at the national tournament in Phoenix. 

The sisters competed in five tournaments this school year, leading up to the region contest and the 5A state tournament, which Hillcrest High hosted. In all those tournaments, the sisters won or placed second, including taking first at the national qualifier. They’re the first to win the state title at Hillcrest High after a number of years.

“We were really happy about state, but it was pretty stressful,” Sofia Moeinvaziri said. “The tournament went late, like 12 hours, because there were a lot of rounds; we were running around helping run the tournament as well as debate. By the time it ended, a lot of teams had left. We were in the finals against Park City, so it was just them, their coaches, and people in the tab room doing results; it was pretty quiet, but we were pretty happy when we learned we won.”

Their coach, Emily Kunz, said it was an “amazing win” at the tournament that had about 450 students participating from 20 schools.

“It was just an emotional moment to see them get that win,” she said. “Even though it was exhausting, I think being on their home turf gave them that mental edge. They’re exceptional debaters.”

Last year, the pair qualified for national debate tournament, however, this is the first time the elder Moeinvaziri has been a high school state champion. 

“Last year, we didn’t break so we didn’t move on, and sophomore year, we made it to quarterfinals. My freshman year, the tournament didn’t happen because of the pandemic,” she said. 

Sofia Moeinvaziri is proud of the debate team’s accomplishments as well.

“As a team, we did great this year,” she said. “Our team had more students participating because we got a debate class this year, which most schools have had for a while.”

At state, her longtime debate teammate senior Michael Chen competed in finals in Lincoln Douglas debate, taking second place.

Kunz said that in his last tournament in high school, “he went out great. He dominated in quarters and semis. He has really strong debate skills.”

Senior Maria Manousakis, who was the state middle school policy debate champion with Moeinvaziri, switched from debate to impromptu speaking this year to take fourth place at the state tournament.

Freshman Ella Astudillo placed fourth in Congress in “an intense competition,” Kunz said.

Other top finishers include freshman Fiona Chen reaching quarterfinals in Lincoln Douglas debate, junior Liliya Barashyan, placing seventh in informative; and freshman Wilson St. Martin finishing 12th in foreign extemporaneous speaking.

Overall, Hillcrest debaters placed eighth at state and doubled their score they posted at region.

“What really helped us was that we placed third at region, which meant we automatically could take up to 30 entries to state based on the strength of our team,” Kunz said. “I’m really proud of how we did.”

In addition, the Utah High School Activities Association recognized three senior forensics members for their high academic achievement: Chen, Manousakis and Priyanka Mathews.

During the school year, it wasn’t just status quo for the Moeinvaziri sisters. Almost every tournament, the public forum topic would change.

“We’d do the research for every single one as the topic changed every month or so,” she said with the exception that it was the same for region and state. “I like how you debate a lot with current events, and you use a lot of evidence and statistical data. I like how you don’t have the same topic all year because I learn a lot through PF. I’ve learned about health care, cryptocurrency, the Space Force, about tariffs, foreign relations.”

While the sisters have paired up in recent years, Sofia Moeinvaziri started participating in fifth grade at the annual Canyons Elementary District Tournament with her friend, Lisa Hoshijima. She then teamed up with classmate Amber Parker in sixth and seventh grade before getting her first state title with Manousakis in policy debate.

Moeinvaziri realizes she’s grown through debate.

“I wasn’t very good at debate when I started, and I wasn’t strong public speaking or even just being assertive. By the time I reached my finals round at state, I was completely different. It really has improved my confidence,” she said, adding that she may participate in debate next year as she heads to Stanford University to major in electrical engineering or math.

While in high school, Moeinvaziri didn’t just concentrate on herself. Every week for two years, she has mentored younger debaters, introducing them to public forum.

“It’s nice to see how it clicks for them how they formulate these arguments. It took me so long to reach that conclusion myself. No one really taught me, so I started teaching other students to help them understand it” she said.

Kunz, who began coaching at Hillcrest last year, has helped the team keep on track with deadlines for 11 different tournaments during the year, typically twice each month leading up to state. In class, she taught 20 students debate and speaking skills from learning about debate issues to how to craft an argument.

Kunz said the skills students learn can be difficult to master, but they are important.

“Debate is critical and practical,” she said. “It’s a fundamental skill students will use in life as they research and present themselves. It also teaches them how to be strong leaders.”

As Kunz is looking forward to next year with a new region that includes Park City High, the team that placed first in Lincoln Douglas and second in public forum to take second place overall at state, she is optimistic.

“I’m really energized as we’re building the team, even with the loss of our strong senior class,” she said. “COVID really limited our students who continued to debate online through the pandemic, but now with our debate class, I can see the success of the program building.”  λ