Senior Juliana Ness was ready to attend both the Pi Kappa Delta and American Forensic Association Nationals. COVID-19 changed the team’s plans.

By Cas Waigand

Webster University’s Forensics and Debate team was ready to go to nationals. They had completed their spring retreat to prepare. The team also had their flights and hotels booked. According to head coach Gina Jensen, the team was having a successful year. This made her optimistic about how the team would do at the Pi Kappa Delta and American Forensic Association national tournaments.

“We had already beat our number of awards that we had won from the previous year and we’ve won so many sweepstakes trophies this year,” Jensen said. “We were really on pace to have an excellent nationals.”

But the team did not get to go to nationals. Both tournaments were canceled, abruptly changing the team’s plans.

The Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament was the first event to be canceled. While Pi Kappa Delta was monitoring the situation and conducting emergency planning, Chief Operating Officer Phillip Voight explained they still initially planned to hold the tournament.

In the end, Voight said California’s restrictions on the size of gatherings forced the host school to cancel. Pi Kappa Delta still held some events online but ultimately had to cancel many more.

“We just did not have any notion that something like this was on the horizon,” Voight said. “If you asked me what were our top 100 concerns about the tournament, pandemic would not have been on that list when we started planning it.”

Jensen learned Pi Kappa Delta canceled the tournament shortly after the team’s spring retreat. Since it was spring break, she called an emergency meeting online to inform the team. According to Jensen, the news was difficult for the students to swallow. She explained the team had thought they would make it to nationals before the pandemic spread.

“People were just heartbroken over it because they worked all year, and they were very excited,” Jensen said. “They all wanted the opportunity to compete at nationals so it was tough.”

Graphic by Cas Waigand

Senior Juliana Ness was one of the students on the video meeting. Ness transferred to Webster two years ago from St. Louis Community College. While she was able to participate in the Pi Kappa Delta tournament last year, this was her first time qualifying for the American Forensic Association national. After Pi Kappa Delta’s announcement, Ness braced herself for more bad news.

“As soon as I heard that like Pi Kappa Delta was done for, I’m like ‘Oh, AFA is probably going to be next.’ Especially since the location of it was at a high school in the California area,” Ness said.

Ness’ prediction was correct. Roughly a week later, the team learned the American Forensic Association was also canceling their National Individual Events Tournament. While Ness expected the cancelation, she was still disappointed she would not be able to attend nationals her senior year. Her community college did not have a speech and debate team. Because of this, Ness explained she worked hard to perfect her speeches for Webster.

Although she was disappointed, Ness said she received support from her family and her team. The support allowed her to reflect on the team’s success rather than the tournaments she could not compete in.

“Everyone just put so much work into it and so much dedication and it did pay off,” Ness said. “We may have not been able to go to nationals but we can still see that success at the other tournaments we went to.”

Along with reflecting on the good, the team will be able to highlight their hard work in different ways. Jensen said the team is creating showcase videos of their events. The videos will be uploaded to the Forensics and Debate YouTube channel by May 20. The team also continues to have video meetings every Friday.

“We know that no matter what happens we’ll just keep working and you know, prepping for the next thing,” Jensen said, “Of course, we’d rather be together.”

Ness will also have the opportunity to compete in the Pi Kappa Delta National Comprehensive Tournament next year. Voight explained the option may not be feasible for everyone, but Pi Kappa Delta wanted to provide seniors with one more chance to compete in nationals.

The American Forensic Association has not yet proposed a similar offer. However, Ness said she is happy as long as she does not miss out on her last Pi Kappa Delta national.

Jensen added many team members are looking to the future as they finish up their events for this year. Despite the cancelations and changes, Jensen thinks the team will be stronger in the coming year.

“I just think everybody is going to work that much harder,” Jensen said. “We are all disappointed but honestly I just think we will use that as fuel to be even better for the next year.”