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University of Nevada, Reno students named national debate champions

Beat defending champions in the final round

RENO, Nev. – University of Nevada, Reno student David Pena didn’t speak English until he was 15 years old. Now, he and fellow Nevada classmate, Max Alderman, are the collegiate national debate champions.

Pena, a senior, and Alderman, a sophomore, teamed up last weekend at University of California, Berkeley to beat the defending champions, a team from Southern Illinois University (SIU), in the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence debate competition. The tournament is an invitational featuring the 64 top-ranked teams in the nation – the NCAA Tournament of debate, so to speak. Pena and Alderman were ranked fifth going into the tournament.

“I had faith in them that they would execute when they needed to,” said Phil Sharp, the University’s debate team coach and director of forensics. “I push them pretty hard, but when it comes time for the debates, I just let them go. They weren’t afraid to go up against the defending champions, like many of the teams were. They actually looked forward to the chance to beat them and used it as motivation.”

Sharp may have thought his team was fearless, but not so, according to Alderman. He knew they had their work cut out for them.

“I was personally scared to death,” Alderman said. “These are some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. We’ve seen them in action throughout the year and we knew they were good – scary good.”

Alderman credits Pena for calming his nerves, but according to Pena, “I just pretended to be calm, but it is really nerve-racking, partly because of the way the tournament is structured.”

Pena explained that many of the schools they competed against have paid graduate students doing research for them prior to the tournament. The Nevada debate team has no such program, only a small budget for travel.

As a result, Pena and Alderman, along with fellow teammates Elia Pirtle and Matthew Hogan, who also competed in the national tournament, spent 12 hours a day over their spring break researching six topics for the debate tournament, such as NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Africa, access to health care and regulation of broadcast media. Their topic in their final round against SIU was the European Union’s peacekeeping operations in Gaza.

Sharp said that although Pena and Alderman had done their research and were well-versed in the various topics, it was really their philosophical, rather than their statistical arguments, and their presence that made them victorious.

“That was their strategy,” he said. “They knew that the other teams would probably have an advantage when it came to research. So, they turned the tables on them and made it a more philosophical debate.”

Pena is a philosophy and political science major, and Alderman is a philosophy and women’s studies major. As a result, the two said they think philosophically naturally, and are able to take philosophical concepts and apply them to real-world situations.

“They controlled and commanded the crowds in every round,” Sharp said. “After Max’s last speech, there was about 30 seconds of silence. Then, the crowd just erupted.”

The two Nevada students swept the tournament, not only winning as a team, but also taking top honors as individuals. Pena was named the Top Speaker, and Alderman was named Second Speaker. Sharp also credits the students’ high school debate coaches and the University’s previous debate coach, Debbie Seltzer-Kelly.

“The skills they had when I got them were very good, a testament to their previous coaching,” he said.

Pena, a McNair Scholar, attended Moapa Valley High School in Overton, Nev. Alderman, a National Merit Scholar, attended Reno High, where he now helps coach that debate team, along with serving as one of the head debate coaches at McQueen High School in Reno.

“I think it’s so important to give back to the community,” he said. “And, the debate community is filled with awesome people who are great to hang out with.”

Nevada’s debate team has 12 members, and they hold four-hour practices four days a week, with most of the team practicing at least eight hours a week. Sharp is getting more calls and emails from high school debaters interested in debating at Nevada.

“We aren’t able to offer scholarships like some schools do, but I think we will still be able to attract some highly skilled high school students,” said Sharp. “David and Max’s win will certainly help.”

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Photo caption: University of Nevada, Reno debate champions (left to right) David Pena and Max Alderman with their National Parliamentary Debate Association trophy. University photo by Jean Dixon.

Nevada’s land-grant university founded in 1874, the University of Nevada, Reno has an enrollment of nearly 17,000 students. The University is home to one the country’s largest study-abroad programs and the state’s medical school, and offers outreach and education programs in all Nevada counties. For more information, visit

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