When you think national champions in the Upstate, you might think Clemson football. Now, you can add Greer’s Riverside High School to the list.
The Riverside Warriors speech and debate team’s Laurel Holley, who graduated earlier this month, won the national championship in U.S. extemporaneous speaking during the National Speech & Debate Association’s 2021 national tournament, held June 13-19.
Holley, who will attend Duke University in the fall, was one of 29 Riverside students to qualify for the virtual event. Of those 29 students, 25 made it beyond the tournament’s preliminary rounds.
“I’m still in shock from it, honestly,” Holley said of her win.
Under the rules, Holley was allowed a half hour to prepare a speech on whether the United States is better prepared for another global health crisis.
She noted the challenges related to COVID-19 that all the high school teams had faced.
“Going into the whole national tournament after a year of being online was crazy because it’s such a test of endurance,” she explained. “We just wanted to all go out there and say ‘Hey, we didn’t let COVID-19 stop us this year.’ We just really wanted to go all in.”
David Dejesa, the program’s director and school adviser, praised Holley’s efforts.
“She is the first national champion at Riverside High School, and that’s a big win when the program has existed since the late 1980s,” he said. “I think that tells you how difficult it is to not only have a student go that far in a tournament, but also to wind up a national champion out of such a competitive field.”
Holley wasn’t the only Warrior to make it deep into the tournament. Will Lovin, a rising senior, was a finalist in supplemental expository speaking and earned sixth place in a field of more than 400 entries.
The team also took several team honors, including being named a Debate School of Excellence and a Speech School of Honor. The National Speech & Debate Tournament is the largest academic competition in the world. This year, more than 8,200 individual entries were received from 1,317 schools from the United States and around the world.
Senior coach Greg Cook praised team members for their hard work after a decade of near-misses at the national level.
“For 10 straight years we won the state championship,” Cook said. “And we went to nationals, and we’d win team awards, or we’d win in supplemental events. But in these main, primetime events, we got to the semifinal round 10 years in a row. I wonder if there’s any team out there that’s done that well without making a final. So, I just thought we won by Laurel making the final round. That was enough.”
Cook said the school’s victory at the national level is something everyone in the community should appreciate.
“I think that having a national championship in an academic event is meaningful to the community in a way that test scores are not,” he said. “This is good for the speech program; it’s good for Riverside. It’s doing the kinds of things you want to see.”