Seven members of the varsity Lincoln-Douglas debate team, the most from any school in the country, have qualified for the Tournament of Champions. The TOC, held this weekend at the University of Kentucky, accepts only the top 75 debaters nationwide.
Head Debate Coach Mike Bietz will receive his second Diamond Award from the National Forensics League (NFL), the oldest high school debate society in the nation.
Each coach receives one-tenth of the points his students win during individual debates, and once a coach has accumulated 1,500 points, he is eligible for his first diamond. To win his second diamond, which can only be awarded five years or more after a coach’s first diamond, Bietz accrued a total of 3,000 coach points.
Best in the Nation
LD, named after the 1850 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas over Douglas’ Illinois Senate seat, draws thousands of high school students nationwide. In order to qualify for the national tournament, debaters must have two bids, each earned by reaching a final round of any individual tournament.
“All of the kids who attend have proven themselves at a difficult level,” Bietz said. “We have the talent to be successful [at TOC] if we prepare right.”
Overall, the team has 19 bids, according to the National Symposium for Debate. Annie Kors ’14 and Michael O’Krent ’14 both have four bids, Julie Engel ’14 and Brendan Gallagher ’13 have three and Shelby Heitner ’14 and Andrew Sohn ’13 have two.
Tommy Choi ’14 applied to the TOC via an “at-large” process for debaters with only one bid. His 80 percent record of wins in preliminary tournament rounds earned him one of five spots at the national tournament reserved for accomplished one-bid debaters.
The Coach’s Influence
Bietz has coached the Harvard-Westlake LD team since 2007 and is the director of the Victory Briefs Institute (VBI), a summer debate intensive at University of California, Los Angeles. He attends most of the team’s approximately 30 tournaments during their season, which stretches from mid-September to early May. Assistant Coach Nate Zerbib-Berda handles the middle school team and administrative duties, while Bietz focuses on directing the novice (freshmen or debaters in their first year of LD) and varsity teams.
In high school, Bietz participated in policy debate, which involves teams of two, until his coach told him he would have to quit football and band to continue debating. He then switched to the single-person LD style.
“I quit because I could do LD when I wanted to,” Bietz said. “Similarly, a lot of the kids here are so busy. [In policy,] you have a partner, you have to be flexible.”
While attending the University of Minnesota, Bietz coached rather than competed with his school’s debate team. Upon graduation, he began his first debate job at Edina High School near Minneapolis, where he built up the LD program for six years.
“I worked in tech startups so debate was always something I did on the side, but something I never didn’t do,” he said.
In 2003, the Harvard-Westlake debate program contacted Bietz, asking him to coach the team, but Bietz chose to stay in Minnesota. Three years later, he moved to Los Angeles to run VBI and felt that, as head of a summer program, he “needed to be coaching too.”
Bietz spent a year working with the debate teams at Archer School for Girls and Brentwood School before accepting an assistant coach position at Harvard-Westlake. The head debate coach at that point was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California whom Bietz had previously coached.
“She said, ‘You can be head coach,’ so that’s what we did,” Bietz said.
The Harvard-Westlake debate program was “absolutely not” at the level it is now when Bietz started, he said. Only one debater from the previous year’s team had returned for the 2007-2008 season.
“In the 70s and 80s, [Harvard] debate was one of the top in the country under legendary coach Tedd Woods,” Bietz said.
Woods retired in 1991 when Harvard and Westlake merged, and King Schofield, a former debater at the University of Southern California who coached at Westlake, took over before the program was shut down in the 1990s.
History teacher Ari Engelberg ’89, who had debated at Harvard School, revived the program, but it remained somewhat lackluster until Jake Sonnenberg ’11 and Ben Sprung-Keyser ’11, who had created the parliamentary debate program at the Middle School, both qualified to the Tournament of Champions in their junior and senior years and competed on the United States debate team. Sprung-Keyser also won the NFL LD championship as a junior in 2010.
The Team Today
“I’ve always said I don’t care if the kids win that much,” Bietz said. “I try to relay that to them. I think that so much of that need to win hurts them.”
When it comes to preparing for tournaments, Bietz sees himself as “part of the team.” He seeks out books, journals and law reviews as material for the debaters’ arguments and helps prepare rebuttals to potential arguments.
“The reading and the writing and the way you think in debate, I can’t think of a thing that it doesn’t prepare you for,” he said.
Debaters spend months researching a topic and walk into tournaments with prepared arguments. During each round, they use philosophical and ethical justifications to prove their points as well as to rebut opponents’ cases.
“I’m much more involved with helping figure out ways to craft responses to arguments and researching,” Bietz said. His input and experience in both research and debate strategy has helped the team attain its current success.
“Bietz has a more vast knowledge of debate than anyone on the circuit and his insight is priceless,” Engel, who also attends VBI, said. “He’s the reason our team is as successful as it is.”
Although his debaters consistently advance to high elimination rounds, Bietz goes into every tournament “thinking we’re going to be awful,” he said. “I always think there’s more we could’ve done. It ends up not being the case, but I never expect that we’ll win. I do expect that they will work hard every round.”