Debate team young, but working toward success

The Marion High School debate team may have been small and young this year, but not without impact.

Sponsor Mary Griffith’s squad was comprised entirely of novices this past season, but her two-person team of Sarah Davidson and Olga Karpenko finished 44th out of 121 teams at the Sunflower Novice Tournament in Lawrence in January.

The Sunflower Tournament is the state competition for first-year debaters.

Along the way, the Warrior duo of Davidson and Karpenko defeated teams from Topeka West, Blue Valley West and Rockville.

“Sarah Davidson was excellent,” Griffith said. “She rated as the No. 1 speaker in all three wins.”

Beyond the solid showing at state, a highlight for the squad was placing fourth at Salina Central and taking home “a real pretty plaque.”

The team also went 4-1 at a tournament at Chaparral. Jacob Taylor then joined Davidson to forge a 3-2 record at a third tournament with wins over much bigger schools-Lawrence Free State, Hays and Hutchinson.

Another highlight was hosting a small novice tournament at Marion. Among the judges at that tournament was a group of Emporia State debaters, including James Meier, a 2000 MHS graduate and three-time state qualifier.

He and Ashley DeForrest, a 2001 graduate, placed third in the 1999 two-man state debate tournament.

Meier and some of his ESU teammates also judged an exhibition dual match with Hillsboro.

“We had over 40 students who came to observe,” Griffith said. “We had a couple of parents who came in, too.”

This year’s team grew out of a “mini class” on debate Griffith taught during first semester.

“We have a 12- to 12:30 period where we have several electives,” Griffith said. “Debate was my elective first semester, now it’s drama.

“I have taught (debate) as a longer class period, too. Of course, that’s a lot better for the students because they can certainly accomplish more. But now they stay after school.

“We devoted several nights to debate,” Griffith added. “But Wednesday night was usually our practice round, where judges would come in and help us.”

It’s not unusual for all Marion team members to be novices, but Griffith hopes her novices will come back for more the following years.

“It’s wonderful when it can grow, because the students who have the experience are the ones who can really be instrumental in judging and coaching and helping along because they bring in so much background,” Griffith said.

The team travels across Kansas to compete in tournaments. This year the itinerary ranged from Lawrence to the northeast, Garden City to the southwest and Derby to the south.

“Long distance did not inhibit our debate enthusiasm because we have been all over the state,” Griffith said.

This year’s statewide debate question addressed U.S. foreign policy and weapons of mass destruction. The topic took on new import after Sept. 11.

“Before 9-11, debate was game-playing,” Griffith said. “But after 9-11 it was reality. It was just a different concept and focus. My goodness, everything we read in the paper had something to do with the topic, it seemed.”

The presence of Karpenko, an exchange student from the Ukraine, added some fresh perspective to the research process.

“She really gave us a rich background in Russian history and even the former Soviet Union,” Griffith said. “She was very interested in nuclear weapons of mass destruction-biological and chemical. In fact, she is now doing a speech about Chernobyl for forensics.”

Griffith has been sponsoring the debate team since the program started at Marion in 1986. She has seen the value of debate from personal observation, but hears it as well from former team members who have gone on to college.

“They mention that debate was a wonderful prerequisite for college because of the researching skills it requires,” she said. “(Debaters) have to think quickly on their feet, they need to be logical, to be able to communicate with a judge, and to be able to read a judge’s paradigm.

“Not every school offers that program, and I think we’re very fortunate to have that it at Marion.”

Griffith said experience in debate has academic value beyond the program itself.

“One class can enrich and enhance another, and I think debate does that,” she said. “It develops confidence. Students are well educated because they are well-read because of the research, and so they have ideas to contribute not only to debate class, but other classes. Debate is excellent for any student.”

She’d like to see more parents encourage their children to try debate.

“I think sometimes students are reluctant to get involved in debate because they think it’s too much work,” Griffith said. “It is work. The first two weeks or so I present lecture material with the background (about debate). After they have a good start, they can do so much independently. That, in turn, builds their confidence.”

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