Pellissippi State debate team with coaches - March 2022

Pellissippi State’s debate team celebrates their recent wins in the Bill Haslam Center for Math and Science. From left are Coach Shaq Marsh, Charles Wilhite, Abigail Burdine, Angela Wilhite, Anika Schultz, team president Dylan Bass, Jake Porteous, Vic Rutherford and Coach Jesse Cragwall. Not pictured are Sadal Ali, Tristan Hamilton and Wesley Reagan.

Despite never having competed in a tournament, the nine members of Pellissippi State Community College’s debate team – and one fellow student who filled an open spot on the team at the last minute – brought home the championship trophy at the Tennessee Valley Invitational Tournament. 

The team, coached by Assistant Professor Shaq Marsh and Instructor Jesse Cragwall, racked up 11 awards at the Feb. 26 event held on the college’s Hardin Valley Campus. Pellissippi State’s students competed against teams from Cleveland State Community College, Tusculum University and Walters State Community College. 

“I was not surprised the team did so well in their first competition because they’ve shown incredible commitment since day one,” Marsh said, noting this is the third consecutive time Pellissippi State’s debate team has won a tournament it hosted. 

The two-person team of Dylan Bass and Anika Schultz won the tournament, bringing home Pellissippi State’s 7th championship in school history and extending the team’s winning streak to 20 consecutive tournaments. 

“I’ve watched debates on YouTube, but that’s the equivalent of backyard wrestling,” said Bass, who was named president of the team and quit his job as a DoorDash driver to prepare. “It was very nerve wracking in the beginning – mainly the public speaking for me.” 

For Schultz, who loves public speaking, her fears centered on the research teams must do before debating their opponents. 

“You only have 15 minutes to prepare your argument, so I was afraid we wouldn’t find enough sources,” she said. 

Debate team champions Anika Schultz and Dylan Bass

The two-person team of Anika Schultz and Dylan Bass won the Tennessee Valley Invitational Tournament, bringing home Pellissippi State’s 7th championship in school history and extending the team’s winning streak to 20 consecutive tournaments.

She needn’t have worried, as the Pellissippi State students rallied around to help each other research the topics they’d been randomly assigned, including “The U.S. should remain neutral in the matter of Ukraine to avoid World War III” and “The game Wordle is a fad.” 

“Keeping up with the news is important,” Bass said. “We all had a feeling Ukraine would be brought up, and it was.” 

In a tournament, two-person teams are assigned a topic and a position to argue, either in the affirmative or the negative. The teams have 15 minutes to research and formulate their arguments, and then individuals on the teams take turns debating their points and counterpoints in a 40-minute round. 

“It’s really about persuasion,” Cragwall said. “The harder part is to be in the negative, and our championship team was in the negative.” 

Students have no choice about whether to argue for or against a topic, regardless of how they feel about it. 

“You have to go into the debate leaving your own opinions aside,” Schultz said. 

Bass agreed. 

“It’s important to remember that, as Dr. Marsh has taught us, you are attacking the arguments, not the topic itself,” he said. “Still, you will often get assigned topics you would have never thought to have an opinion on!” 

Pellissippi State’s debate team paired off into twos to compete: Bass and Schultz, Sadal Ali and Jake Porteous, Abigail Burdine and Tristan Hamilton, Wesley Reagan and Vic Rutherford, and Angela and Charles Wilhite. 

The teams and the individual members of the teams receive scores from the judges. Pellissippi State students who won speaking awards in the Novice division include: 

  • Burdine, 8th place 
  • Rutherford, 7th place 
  • Porteous, 5th place 
  • Schultz, 3rd place 
  • Bass, 2nd place 
Debate Team Coach Shaq Marsh, right, confers with Charles and Angela Wilhite

Debate Team Coach Shaq Marsh, right, confers with Charles and Angela Wilhite about their scores at a recent tournament. “Angela and I have greatly enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a ‘normal college activity’ being that we are nontraditional students,” Charles Wilhite said of he and his wife.

Meanwhile, Pellissippi State’s team of Angela and Charles Wilhite, who are married to each other, advanced to the semifinal round in the Open division, which is typically filled by upperclassmen. They laughed about being “thrown to the wolves” not because they had more debate experience, but because as nontraditional students, they have more life experience than their younger teammates. 

Angela Wilhite won the 8th place speaker award in the Open division while Charles Wilhite won 3rd. 

“We usually take topics and debate them until my head explodes,” joked Angela Wilhite. 

“We complement each other well,” Charles Wilhite insisted. 

The team will continue practicing at least twice a week in preparation for a tournament scheduled for later in March. As team president, Bass keeps track of students’ time by setting intervals on his watch, and he uses a random topic generator to help students practice transitioning from one argument to another. 

“I think too quickly so my challenge is organizing my thoughts,” said Porteous, who jokingly noted his previous debate experience was limited to debates with his parents. 

Pellissippi State will next host the Tennessee Intercollegiate Forensics Association state championships 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, March 26, and 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, March 27, on the Hardin Valley Campus. Tournaments are open to the public, and Pellissippi State’s debate team would love to have a supportive crowd to cheer them on.  

In addition, Pellissippi State could use more volunteers to help staff or judge its debate tournaments. To volunteer, contact Marsh at