Sophia Leonard, 18, a 2023 graduate of Central High School, placed third in the Extemporaneous Debate category at the National Speech and Debate competitions in June 2023 in Phoenix. Leonard spent many hours in Central's library preparing for competitions. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

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July was a relatively slow month for Central High School graduate Sophia Leonard. She got to go on a trip to Colorado with friends, and spent some time preparing to a move to Massachusetts, where she will be attending College of the Holy Cross in the fall semester. 

The break was deserved. After she walked in May during Central’s graduation, in June she capped her career on the speech and debate team by competing in the National Speech and Debate Tournament, held over five days in Phoenix.

Over that stretch, amidst more than 1,040 competitors, Leonard advanced through more than a dozen rounds, taking only one loss and placing third in extemporaneous debate — a high achievement in the nation’s premier event for public speaking. 

It was an outstanding capstone for an event that meant so much to her at Central. 

“Debate became one of the defining things about me,” said Leonard, who was an ambassador, champion and leader for the team. “Of all the activities and things I could pick and choose, and how much I put into them, debate got the most.” 

Sophia Leonard sits outside the Central High School debate club room. Leonard would retreat to the hallway to prepare when the room was too full with other club members. Leonard, who graduated in May, placed third in the Extemporaneous Debate category at the National Speech and Debate competitions in June 2023 in Phoenix. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Event calls for quick thinking

As the name implies, extemporaneous debate does not allow for a lot of advance preparation compared to other debate events, such as two-person or Lincoln-Douglas. The difference in extemporaneous debate is how participants cover a wide variety of topics.

Leonard said the event topics covered a wide swath of public policy, current events and cultural talking points. The list of the topics she debated resemble the headlines from barely a month’s worth of news.

“At the national tournament, I covered everything from social media use in school to whether the G7 is redundant or not,” Leonard said. “Whether TikTok should be allowed on university devices, electoral integrity, whether federal judges should be term limited.”

In each round, the topics, presented in the form of resolutions, and positions were assigned to two competitors 30 minutes before the start of the round. Leonard said they were able to collaborate with team members during that time, and plan their arguments for a fast round of debate. 

Where a Lincoln-Douglas debate takes 32 minutes and a two-person policy debate takes 72 minutes, an extemporaneous debate is fast-paced. Over in 16 minutes, debaters get a series of rounds (no longer than 2 minutes each) to make their points, cross-examine the opposing argument, rebut their competitor’s points and crystallize their case. 

Called a “supplemental event” by the organizers of the tournament, it is also one of the most popular — about 1,040 of the more than 6,000 competitors at the tournament took part. Success in the event requires a broad knowledge of political and cultural events, the ability to build a convincing case quickly and to speak well off the cuff. 

Path to the podium

Getting a chance to participate in this national event takes impressive skill and high performance in local and district tournaments throughout the year. Leonard said she had made it to nationals during her previous high school years, reaching some impressive marks, but never placing. 

This year was different. Leonard excelled during the national competition — over two days, Leonard won 13 straight debates, including eight of them in the first day. 

Sophia Leonard poses with the trophy she won for finishing third place in extemporaneous debate. (Photo submitted)

Central High School’s team is led by Jack Tuckness, who has coached the team for more than 20 years and earned entrance into the NSDA’s Hall of Fame in 2018. Leonard said Tuckness’ coaching prepared her well for the event, from rigorous research throughout the season to a reassuring “You got this” during the event.

“He is always really big on preparation and putting in work,” Leonard said. “Natural talent can take you only so far, and the rest is hard work … the other big thing was he told me to take a deep breath and go in nice and calm. There was no reason to stress myself out, because that’s when we’re more likely to mess up.” 

Throughout her progress, another debater also excelled with a tremendous record. Because of how the event was judged and scored, Leonard never got a chance to take on that student. In her 14th round, she found herself in a match to advance for that chance at first place.

In that round, Leonard was on the supportive side of a resolution calling for complete elimination of nuclear warheads. Because Leonard generally frowns on absolutes, she said she struggled to address specifics of her opponent’s points in the limited time. 

“To my opponent’s credit, he was well researched and had a large team behind him,” Leonard said. “He brought up uses of nuclear weapons used to extinguish an offshore drilling fire. There were environmental ramifications to that, but it was hard to get into that nuance.” 

The loss kept her from advancing to debate in the final round for first place, but won her third place — an impressive achievement considering the more than thousand competitors. 

Sophia Leonard spent many hours in the Central High School library preparing for debate competitions. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Debate best for her skill set

Leonard was a high-achieving student with a long list of participation and membership, including DECA, where she was part of a team that won second place in 2022’s international competition. Leonard won a silver medallion for restaurant and food service management. 

She also was an ambassador for the district’s International Baccalaureate program, as well as a member of the district’s community task force in 2022, which was assembled to evaluate school buildings across the district and provide information eventually used for April’s bond election. 

Of all those opportunities, Leonard said she valued her time on the debate team most of all. She was a member of the team during all four years of high school, and was involved in speech and debate since seventh grade, she said. She loved how it emphasized research skills, and thinking critically quickly on her feet.

“I’ve always chosen to do events that prize persuasion in all walks of life,” Leonard said. “Those kinds of soft skills will be valuable no matter what I’m doing.”

One of the key things that debate taught her to do was consider both sides of an issue, she said. One of the traps for a debater is when they are called upon to argue a point they don’t agree with. 

Leonard said that is a delicate balance, and that she has watched others who can’t get personal beliefs out of their heads during a round. She attacks that with open-mindedness, she said, and consideration for other points of view. It’s a tactic that works well in a debate and in her personal life, she said. 

“It’s good to be as open-minded as possible,” Leonard said. “You can see more of where they are coming from when you are having conversations.”

It’s a skill that more people need these days, in this era of tribalistic talking points and knee-jerk reactions that seem to define debate today. Our culture’s idea of debate, which is filled with name-calling, ad hominem attacks and bereft of responding in good faith, leaves her disappointed and frustrated, she said. 

“If I could get all of us in a room together and lead a workshop or teach them something, I’d teach them data analysis and scientific literacy,” Leonard said. “My grandma is a high school math teacher, and she always said that numbers don’t lie, but people can make them lie.”

In Extemporaneous Debate, Sophia Leonard had to be prepared to argue either the pro or con position of an issue. Her skills served her well in finishing third in the Extemporaneous Debate category at the National Speech and Debate competitions. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Looking forward

As for her future plans, she does not plan to continue with the debate team in college. She said the event is a different animal at the college level. But she is intrigued by a moot court team, where competitors take on the roles of attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants. 

She has not decided on a major yet — economics and public health policy are intriguing areas, she said. She also is interested in pursuing a law degree or politics. 

The range of issues she experienced while on Central’s debate team prepared her for anything, she said. 

“It’s definitely opened me up to seeing a lot of political issues and delving into the nitty gritty, past the headlines of the news cycle,” Leonard said. “As I look at what I want my life to be, I definitely want to keep interacting with these issues.”

Other Springfield students competed in Phoenix

Sophia Leonard was the biggest winner at this year’s National Speech and Debate Association tournament, held in June in Phoenix. But she wasn’t the city’s only competitor — the following students also qualified for the prestigious event.

  • Haley Dalton, of Hillcrest, placed 114 out of 512 in prose.
  • Elias Tucker, of Hillcrest, competed in prose.
  • Lily Brozovich, of Parkview, competed in extemporaneous debate.
  • Asher Wright, of Parkview, competed in extemporaneous debate.
  • Alec Rosa, of Parkview, competed in original spoken word poetry.
  • Jacob Hall, of Kickapoo, competed in Congressional debate.
  • Abigail Stowe, of Kickapoo, competed in extemporaneous debate.
  • Kassidy Ellis, of Kickapoo, competed in public forum debate.
  • Brynleigh Hill, of Kickapoo, competed in informative speaking.
  • Keyton Meador, of Kickapoo, competed in world schools debate and made it to double OCTO finals.
  • Jude Reimenschneider, of Kickapoo, competed in extemporaneous debate.
  • Hunter Maggard, of Kickapoo, competed in public forum debate.

Joe Hadsall

Joe Hadsall is the education reporter for the Springfield Daily Citizen. Hadsall has more than two decades of experience reporting in the Ozarks with the Joplin Globe, Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine. Contact him at (417) 837-3671 or More by Joe Hadsall