West Roxbury, Mass.—James Julian knew of Will Cummings from their time together at Monsignor Haddad Middle School in Needham.
They performed in the school musical together. They each shared an interest in speech and debate. However, their paths seldom crossed. James, a grade above Will, had graduated and matriculated to Catholic Memorial before they had a chance to really know one another.
Now, both CM underclassmen have qualified for the National Speech & Debate Association’s National Tournament in Albuquerque after a top-three finish together in the Duo Interpretation category at the Northeast Regional Tournament in early February. On Saturday, they qualified for their second national tournament, this time for the National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament in Chicago.
“Will is a great partner,” said James, a Needham resident.
“He’s a freshman and he’s really taken up a big role. Qualifying for nationals as a freshman is an incredible accomplishment. He’s really stepped up to the plate.”
Their journey to the two national tournaments began in September, when Will arrived at CM for his freshman year of high school.
James, a sophomore, needed a partner for his Duo Interpretation piece on the Speech and Debate Team. He recognized Will’s name during cross country practices in September. Aware of his skillset and interests from their days at Monsignor Haddad, James decided to text Will, a Westwood resident, to gauge his interest in performing a duo set.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do this year for categories at first,” said James.
“I was trying to figure things out. So, I decided to ask Will if he wanted to do a Duo.”
In October, Will agreed to give Duo a try. The two met after school and began practicing their own rendition of a piece called Someone Who Will Watch Over Me. Their rendition portrayed an Irishman and an Englishman held hostage in Lebanon. Using their imagination, James and Will needed to depict how both characters would survive their time in confinement.
“Personally, I’ve had the most fun that I’ve ever had in speech and debate in the Duo category,” said James.
“I think it’s the fact that you get to feed off another person’s energy.”
The two performed their piece for the first time at the Lincoln-Sudbury Tournament in December. According to James, the duo barely had their script memorized but still finished in the finals of their category.
With their first taste of success still fresh, the two decided to commit their free time to perfecting the script. For both students, it meant looking back at how the judges in their contest voted, breaking down their piece step-by-step, and learning new ways to refine their English and Irish accents.
For James, an Honors and AP Student at CM, this also meant adjusting his own schedule to meet the needs of the freshman who played on CM’s basketball team in the winter.
“I think the hard work aspect has really helped us out,” said Will.
“I play basketball here too, so he’s waited for me for a full basketball game to practice, which has been really helpful.”
According to James, the duo made progress every day. He said he knew the amount of work it took to win a speech and debate tournament from his older brothers, Ryan and Brendan. Ryan and Brendan graduated from CM in 2018 and 2019 respectively and finished back-to-back years as Duo Interpretation State Finalists.
James said his brothers taught him how to lead a duo group and how to understand what the judges look for in a performance.
“I had the experience and Will didn’t,” said James.
“It took some time to show him the ropes, but he caught on quickly.”
By the end of December, James and Will finished fourth at the Holly Festival in Natick. In January, the duo continued to build confidence thanks to the positive feedback from older team members on their team.
“I’ve met a lot of kids who are older than me and have a lot more experience that I do,” said Will.
“They’ve prepared me for these tournaments every step of the way.”
On the first Saturday of February, James and Will earned their moment in the spotlight. At the NSDA Regional Tournament, they finished in the top-three of the contest’s Duo Interpretation Category, enough to qualify them for the NSDA National Tournament in June.
Then, a week later, they followed up their impressive performance with another top-three finish at the regional Catholic school meet in Shrewsbury, earning their second national qualification in a two-week span.
Now, both students already have their sights set on their May and June tournament dates.
“I can’t wait to go because I’m only a sophomore and I can’t wait to see my competition for years to come,” said James.
“I think we need to have this we-have-nothing-to-lose mindset when we go down there.”