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NATIONAL CHAMPS! Free State debate duo wins big tournament

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Lead photo updated at 11:24 p.m. Monday, April 25; story last updated at 8:22 a.m. Tuesday, April 26

Free State High School seniors Serena Rupp and John Marshall won the final round of the Tournament of Champions late Monday on a 2-1 decision, becoming national champions.

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Rupp and Marshall have been debating together since sophomore year. Last year, the two were the first Lawrence school district team to ever qualify for the annual tournament, according to coach Kelly Thompson.

They’ve set numerous records and earned many accolades; just one among them, they won Free State’s first Round Robin-style tournament this year.

In the Tournament of Champions this year, held annually by the University of Kentucky, Rupp and Marshall won on a 3-0 decision in the Policy Debate semifinals to face a duo from Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida.

“Serena and John defeated teams from Decatur HS (GA), Peninsula HS (CA), Little Rock Central (AK), Mamaroneck (NY), all on unanimous 3-0 decisions, on their way to the final round,” Thompson said via email Tuesday morning, noting that the team had split debates with Berkeley Prep all season.

“This concludes a record-shattering high school policy debate career for John and Serena, which saw them become the first team from Free State to ever earn a TOC bid, to ever win a TOC qualifying tournament, to ever debate at the TOC, to ever break at the TOC, to place in the top 30 of NSDA Nationals two times, and of course, to win the TOC,” Thompson said.

The Berkeley team was ranked No. 1 on the February National Top 25 High School Debate Coaches Poll, where Rupp and Marshall were ranked fourth. Rupp and Marshall were ranked No. 1 in March in rankings compiled by KleinLine, followed by No. 2 Berkeley Prep.

The Free State team competed Monday with a Firebird on the wall behind them.

John Marshall, top left, and Serena Rupp, bottom left, during the national championship round of the Tournament of Champions, April 25, 2022. (Screenshot)

This year, Free State took a second team to the Tournament of Champions. The team of junior Aaron Persinger and sophomore Sophie Racy dropped in the doubles, but they had an excellent season and they “will be back,” according to Thompson.

In a February interview, Rupp said she had no doubt the research and public speaking experience she has gained through debate had helped her academically. Although she had not yet decided on a path after graduation, she said she was planning to continue in a debate program in college.

On Monday, she debated in a bright blue Emory University Debate shirt. Thompson confirmed Tuesday that Rupp will continue her debate career at the Atlanta, Georgia, school.

Marshall said in February that he hadn’t yet chosen a college either, and he didn’t know if he would continue in debate at the next level. However, he said the experience he has gained debating in high school would serve him either way.

“Debate is something not easy to leave, which doesn’t make the decision any easier,” he said. “Even if I don’t continue to do it, I’ve gained unimaginably important skills far before most people.”

Thompson said Marshall has selected the University of Kansas. Marshall will join a debate team that has made it to the Final Four of the National Debate Tournament four years in a row.

John Marshall, top left, and Serena Rupp, bottom left, compete in the national championship round of the Tournament of Champions, April 25, 2022. (Screenshot)

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com or 785-422-6363. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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