Unconventional mentorship leads Speech and Debate team to victory

Divy Bose | Staff Writer

The term “team mom” can get thrown around when it comes to school organizations. Sunayna Ponkshe, is more than just a team mom of the Mason High School (MHS) Speech and Debate team. Along with providing guidance and mentorship she does a great deal of the heavy lifting behind the scenes so her team can enjoy the accolades of their hard work when they are in the spotlight. 

The MHS Speech and Debate team entered their 2020-2021 season without a coach, causing a plethora of hurdles for the team to clear in order to have a successful season. In addition to the assistance provided by Ponkshe, the team’s upperclassmen took on a greater role by completing tasks a coach would typically be responsible for, such as researching the opposing team’s strengths and weaknesses and organizing practices to keep the team engaged and motivated.

The goal of Speech and Debate is to teach students important public speaking, debating, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. The team competes in 10 speech events each week and two debate tournaments each year. After each tournament, the participants that rank the highest get “bids,” earning themselves a secured spot in the statewide tournament. 

This season, the team rallied around each other, providing critical feedback to foster their success. Their reliance on one another paid off with several successful performances throughout the season, ending with a record number of 42 qualifiers in the Ohio Speech and Debate Association’s State Finals. 

Although the team members handled many of the aspects of coaching such as strategy and skill development, Sunayna Ponkshe, mother of team member Kunal Ponkshe, has been a valuable mentor to the team. Ponkshe takes care of the team’s logistics such as hotel reservations, transportation, and tournament schedule. Ponkshe said her role expanded past the usual “team mom” duties this year as she soon became the team’s biggest cheerleader and an integral part of their program.

“My wonder team of students does the coaching by themselves,” Ponkshe said. “I just give them guidance. They are so knowledgeable and they do a wonderful job.”

Senior and Vice-Captain of Debate Alex Ye said Ponkshe’s duties go beyond those of a typical team parent as she makes sure to congratulate or cheer up each of her team members. “She is always there to give us her support,” Ye said. “She’s the first one to text any team member about how the match went, win or lose.”

The team is a close-knit community that relies on each other for guidance, even from those who are no longer in high school. This year, MHS Speech and Debate alumnus Vinamra Agrawal felt it was important for him to step in and help mentor the team. As a former event leader, Agarwal is able to draw upon his previous leadership experience to help the current team sharpen their skills.

Captain of Debate and MHS’ seventh state championship winner, senior Tony Liu, said that developing a disciplined side of himself was essential to his success. Liu felt it was important for seniors like himself to provide mature leadership to the team, but to also make sure the team members knew that they had a reputation to uphold. 

“When we go out of town to a respected tournament, the reputation of Mason falls on us, even if we are going by ourselves,” Liu said. “We want everyone to have fun, but damaging the school’s reputation can cost us.”

Behind the scenes, the team members work hard to prepare for their performances. The team approach has proven to be a success with everyone relying on each other to critique performances and provide constructive feedback. Mehta believes this approach not only benefits their performances, but also helps them prepare for life outside of the competition. 

“Being punctual is something that prepares you for the real world and is needed to assert your authority, even when your friends are on the team,” Mehta said. “But helping the freshman perfect their speaking techniques and watching them progressively improve was fulfilling to watch.” 

Ye believes it is important for him as an experienced team member to pass on his knowledge as he prepares to graduate. He feels this collaboration will help to prepare the underclassmen on this team for their roles in the future.

 “There’s a real sense of community when you have all the seniors helping the freshman,” Ye said. “I am making sure I am doing my best to pass on all the debate knowledge to the underclassmen so that they can be in my shoes in years to come.” 

While the team does have adult mentorship to help mentor and organize, they are proud of how healthy criticism created a sense of ownership in the team’s overall performance. They know they have their teammates’ support, win or lose. According to Liu, this collectivity has helped the team build an even stronger foundation. 

“In a way, it’s a hidden blessing not having that set head coach because it forces us to connect with one another,” Liu said. “We get to build that level of friendship as winners.” 


Graphic by Aadrija Biswas and Rachel Cai