Lawrence’s high school debate teams compete at State, reflect on season

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Lawrence high school debate teams recently competed at the State tournament, completing the season and another year of remote competitions.

Free State High School finished with a 14-2 record and in second place overall at the four-speaker tournament. At the two-speaker tournament, the team of Aaron Persinger and Sophie Racy finished in third place with an 8-2 record; Cici Hunter and Connor Brown finished in ninth with a 5-3 record. 

“Our teams performed quite well and we are proud of their results. Anytime you can go to the state tournament and bring home a trophy, let alone two, is cause for celebration,” FSHS Debate Coach Kelly Thompson said.

Lawrence High School had two teams advance to the elimination rounds — junior Frances Parker and senior J. Riggins, and seniors Jake Shew and Helen Viloria. Both finished in the top 32.

“Any time a school gets two teams in the top 32, it is a good season. I am incredibly proud of the work these debaters have done this year, as it has been one of the most successful years in LHS Debate history,” coach Jeff Plinsky said in an email.

Contributed Photo Lawrence High School seniors Jake Shew, left, and Helen Viloria finished in the top 32 in the Kansas State two-speaker debate tournament Jan. 14-15, 2022. Here, they wear medals from the Derby Panther Invitational in November 2021.
Contributed Photo Lawrence High School students Caitlin Sand, left, and J. Riggins wear medals from the Derby Panther Invitational in November 2021. Riggins and partner Frances Parker finished in the top 32 at the Kansas State two-speaker debate tournament Jan. 14-15, 2022.
Contributed Photo Lawrence High School junior Frances Parker, pictured, along with partner J. Riggins finished in the top 32 at the Kansas State two-speaker debate tournament Jan. 14-15, 2022.

Bishop Seabury Academy came in fifth for the four-speaker tournament after tiebreakers. In the two-speaker events, team captain Darby Harris and teammate Ryan Dekat placed fourth.

This year’s topic was water conservation – something already embedded into the Bishop Seabury curriculum.

“Our school actually has a class that is focused on water conservation … how water protection works from more of a scientific perspective,” Bishop Seabury coach Benton Bajorek said. “So when the kids found out this was the topic, they were immediately very excited about it.”

Contributed Photo Bishop Seabury seniors Ryan Dekat and Darby Harris placed fourth in the two-speaker state tournament, Jan. 14-15, 2022. Harris is also the team captain.

Serena Rupp, a senior debater from Free State, had a harder time getting interested in the subject. Once she started her research, though, she found a passion.

“When it was first announced, I was pretty upset, especially after topics like Immigration and Criminal Justice Reform that felt more timely. Now, I’ve grown to really enjoy the topic,” Rupp said in an email. “We read an affirmative that discusses global warming and food insecurity, issues that are quickly gaining relevance. Other discussions center on the lack of clean water in places like Flint, Michigan. I’ve learned lots about climate policy and environmentalism, which I hope to focus on more in college.”

Rupp will continue her debate career in college. Though she has not decided on where she will attend, she has only applied to schools with a competitive program to continue her successful career with FSHS debate. 

At FSHS, Rupp has earned national recognition. Each month, a group of coaches from across the country create a poll that ranks the top 25 teams in the country. Rupp and her partner, John Marshall, were ranked fourth on that poll every month during the season. 

They’re not the only Free State debate figures to garner special recognition: earlier this month, Thompson won Kansas Debate Coaches Invitational Coach of the Year.  

“We’ve been really fortunate to have really great students and really great assistant coaches. I tell them anytime I win that an award that really those awards belong to them, because they do all of the hard work,” Thompson said. “But it feels really good … To be recognized by your peers and colleagues doing the same thing that you do is really special, and I really appreciate it.”

Thompson specifically credited his assistant coaches — Michael Shelton, Brenda Alvarez, Maverick Edwards, Max McCarty, and Ryan Snow — in the team’s success.

“Our assistant coaches work really hard and they get paid almost nothing to do that because they get paid hourly at minimum wage. I think a lot of our credit for our success goes to them and I want to make sure that they’re recognized,” Thompson said. 

Contributed Photo At the 4-Speaker State Tournament held Jan. 14-15, 2022, Free State finished with a 14-2 record and in 2nd place overall. Students on the team (from left to right) include Eleanor Roust, Emma Stammeyer, Serena Rupp, Ezra Joseph, John Marshall, and Gilly Falin.

Though they recognize it as a necessity, coaches and students across participating schools lamented that competitions were online yet again. Thompson said that at Free State, their retention rates for underclassman debaters was unfortunately low.

Rupp said before COVID, one of her favorite parts of debate was getting to travel to new places and see her non-Free State friends at tournaments.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic moved everything online, and national tournaments still haven’t fully returned to the in-person format,” she said. “While I struggled a lot last year with the draining nature of competing in tournaments from my kitchen table or an empty Free State classroom, I did have a lot more time to connect with debaters online. I also had lots of extra free time to research and practice, which I think helped contribute a lot to our newfound success.”

Bajorek agreed that a lot of the draw for younger debate students is the experience of in-person connections.

“The reason why kids do this is not because of the wins, it’s because of the relationships that they build with each other and the relationships that they build with their competitors,” Bajorek said. “I think that for the most part, our kids really enjoy the opportunity to travel and meet new people and be able to see your judge face to face and get those kind of communal experiences that were missing largely last year because of the online format.”

Despite the struggles of remote competitions, students across Lawrence high schools have been able to connect with each other and find common ground. Bajorek said he is especially proud of the diversity in this year’s team, and of the culture Bishop Seabury debate is fostering.

“This is the most girls that we’ve qualified for State, and I am just especially proud at how my students really tried to make sure that there were people invited into the team that didn’t necessarily look like them the year before. I really wanted my kids to make sure that our debate team was not just a safe space for them, that it was a safe space for everyone at our school,” Bajorek said. “I’m immensely proud of our recruiting efforts and also our ability to come together and really support one another. They’ve all done an incredible job this year, and I’m incredibly proud of them.”

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Emma Bascom (she/her) reported for The Lawrence Times from December 2021 through May 2022. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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Free State takes home hardware at state debate tournament; Lawrence High seniors cap off historic season

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In a weekend featuring more than a dozen high school debaters from Lawrence, Free State took home second place in the 4-speaker division and sent a team to the semifinals in the 2-speaker division of the state tournament. Meanwhile, two Lawrence High seniors have earned the school’s first bid to the national Tournament of Champions.

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