Free State juniors take debate program to new competitive heights, break records

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Two juniors at Free State High School have set new records for the district and even for the state of Kansas with their performance throughout the season and at a major national debate competition this past weekend.

Serena Rupp and John Marshall were the first Lawrence school district team to ever qualify for the Tournament of Champions, according to coach Kelly Thompson. 


Students must earn bids at competitive national tournaments throughout the year in order to qualify for the TOC, Thompson said. Rupp and Marshall earned six bids this season. 

“That is the most of any team in Kansas this season, the most of any pair of juniors in Kansas debate history, and was tied for the 4th most bids amongst any team nationwide this season,” Thompson said via email. “Prior to the tournament, LFS RM (as they are known) were ranked 26th in a poll generated by coaches across the country.”

Ninety teams from across the country participated in the Policy Debate division at the tournament, which was hosted by the University of Kentucky, Thompson said. All teams compete in seven preliminary rounds, and those who win at least five rounds qualify for the elimination bracket. 

Rupp and Marshall entered the seventh round up 4-2, and they scored an upset against the No. 11-ranked team from a Texas magnet school, the Liberal Arts & Science Academy, to advance. They finished the preliminary round as the No. 16 seed overall, Thompson said. 

They fell on a 2-1 decision to Bellarmine Academy, the 24th-ranked team from California, but their advancement marks just the second time in tournament history that a team of two juniors from Kansas have qualified for elimination rounds, Thompson said. 

Individually, Rupp was 35th overall speaker and Marshall was 65th. 

Rupp, Marshall and 14 other Free State students will compete in the National Speech and Debate Association National Championship Tournament in June, Thompson said. Last year, as sophomores, LFS RM were 26th at the tournament. 

Kelly Thompson Free State High School debaters for the 2020-2021 season are pictured in this screenshot from their coach.

The duo won’t get a break after that, though, Thompson said: the University of Michigan selected them as JW Patterson fellows

“The program invites the top rising Seniors from across the country together for a seven week intensive debate camp where they’ll receive coaching from some of the best college, high school and academic minds in the US,” Thompson said. 

Rupp and Marshall’s season can be summed up by teamwork and hard work, Thompson said. 

“The pair has worked tirelessly, and with the support of the rest of our varsity team, essentially since the start of the 2019-2020 school year,” the coach said. “It is inspiring and awe-inspiring in all of the best ways, and I could not be more proud of them, or for them, for what they’ve accomplished so far in their careers!”

Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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