Broken wings mean success for SIU debate team

By Austin Miller, @AMiller_DE

The SIU debate team is breaking more than just records.

Joshua Rivera and Zach Schneider won back-to-back tournaments at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Calif., last weekend.

Schneider and Rivera’s trophies were broken this year because the bronze eagles earned at the competitions did not survive the trip back home.


Rivera, a senior from Chicago studying political science, said he packed his eagle nice and tight and put it in his carry-on luggage, but somehow had the wings knocked off during the flight.

Schneider, a senior from Great Mills, Md., studying computer science, said he decided to include trophy in his checked baggage, however the poor bird did not survive.

Todd Graham, director of debate, has collected a cache of bronze paint and plaster glue in addition to collecting trophies specifically for this reason.

The Point Loma Round Robin Tournament of Champions is an invite-only competition featuring the top 12 ranked teams in the nation.

The Sunset Cliffs Classic was held Sunday, which included more than 100 teams.

Graham said the Salukis have a tradition of excellence when they compete in San Diego, almost a home away from home. For the last eight years, SIU has won 12 of the 16 tournaments held at Point Loma.

“I’ll just call that a fluke,” Graham said. “I don’t know why we’re winning. These are the biggest, most competitive tournaments of the second semester and some of the biggest of the whole year.”


The warm beaches of San Diego may have provided a mental boost for the team. Debates will always be the same, this time arguing topics surrounding President Obama’s recent State of the Union Address. But Graham said the change from hotel and debate rooms to beaches and the ocean removes some stress. 

Even though the team has performed well in warm weather, the team still had to put in hours of work during winter break to get ready for the spring semester.

Graham said assignments were due on Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, which he believes was reasonable. One assignment provided some troubles for the team, so Graham asked one of the graduate coaches to work on it. Just one-sixth of the assignment took 14 hours of research.

More than 120 hours will be spent hitting the books in the weeks before the national championships.

Rivera said Graham’s idea of reasonable is a demand of excellence, which he has learned to expect.

SIU has just one debate team, smaller than other schools they face that field two or three teams. Smaller teams in other sports often struggle to compete, but debate recognizes their shortcomings and works above them.

“There’s a chip on our shoulder when we’re doing the research,” Graham said. “We have to remember that we’re being out-researched by these other teams. We have one team doing research, they know how good this has to be.”

Graham switched the order of debaters during the semester break even after winning three of five tournaments. Graham said the team did not perform well in the last few tournaments, so he made the switch, which has paid off thus far. He did the same thing during last year’s national championship, with less success.

“My frienemies say, ‘Todd it’s not that you’ve made a genius move, it’s that you were wrong for most of the year,’” he said. “We’ll just say, first semester I had a terrible coaching time and then when I switched positions it was like turning on a light bulb.”

Schneider, who transferred to SIU from Cedarville University in Ohio last semester, now provides the opening and closing argument for the team. He said he has gotten good with the final speech because he is able to piece the debate together and find the important parts for the end. 

At this weekend’s tournament at Loyola University in Chicago, Rivera will face the last two tournaments of his collegiate career. He is a two-time national champion and has been a part of four of the seven straight final fours in a national championship.

“I am comfortable with the end of my career, but I want to close it out the best way possible,” he said.

After this weekend, the team will take a weeklong break before getting ready for the National Parliamentary Debate Association Nationals on March 15 in Kansas City, Kan., and the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence on March 20 in Liberty, Mo.