For the third time in over a century, more than 300 competitors from nearly 50 schools across Kansas will flood into Garden City High School Friday and Saturday for the Kansas State Debate Tournament, the championship competition for 5A and 6A schools.

The tournament, often held in eastern Kansas, has come to Garden City every 10 years on the dot since 1999, said GCHS debate coach Russ Tidwell, who has been with the school since 1995. This year, the first state tournament in Garden City since 2009, the competition will storm the new GCHS campus for the first time.

Fueled by a support team of 30 to 40 staff and volunteers, the tournament will hold two- and four-speaker divisions for 5A and 6A schools, each round organized by 16 to 18 judges. Because nearly every classroom will be used, classes at the high school were canceled entirely on Friday, Tidwell said.

“It’s been a pretty big undertaking. It feels like it’s taking over the school,” Tidwell said.

The two-day event is expected to bring in possibly more than 1,000 debaters, coaches, judges and supporters, fill at least 400 hotel rooms, and garner more than $200,000 in economic impact for the area, said Melissa Sowers, sales director of events and planning at the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A larger tournament, particularly one without a cross-state drive, is valuable for western Kansas debate teams, which have long been fading away, Tidwell said. Due to coach availability or limited funding, among other factors, debate programs have become rare in the region. Today, there are only five teams west of Hays, he said.

“We have tournaments out here but they’re small, and they certainly don’t draw the kids from Wichita and Topeka and Kansas City, which are the bulk of the 6A competition and 5A competition,” Tidwell said.

The local championship is a good opportunity for the GCHS competitors, but even more so for those that did not qualify and would usually not get to travel to watch the state level competition, Tidwell said. With the competition closer to home, they have the opportunity to watch some of the best debaters in the state.

“They’ll get to watch us and see what possibly they could be doing ... in the future and learn more about it,” said Gracie Mueller, a sophomore on the GCHS team.

Though the GCHS debate team did not qualify for the four-speaker division, four teams — Caitlyn Harman and Trevor Southern, Alyssa Day and Andrea Moya, Mueller and Reagan Wright, and Andrew Unruh and Jessica Angulo — will represent the school in the two-speaker division.

The teams have been researching subjects, practicing speech drills and identifying strategies ahead of the tournament, Southern said. The smaller tournaments the school usually holds are more entry-level, he said, and he was excited to compete for judges that approached the tournament from different mindsets and techniques. He was eager to debate about immigration and border politics.

Angulo, who wants to be a lawyer, hoped they had the chance to discuss the government shutdown.

The competitions will begin at 11:30 a.m. Friday after registration and an assembly, followed by three more rounds at 1:45, 4 and 6:15 p.m. Friday and two rounds Saturday morning, all closed to the public. After noon on Saturday, nearly all rounds will be free and open to the public.

The 6A class will hold double octafinals at 12:30 p.m., and both classes will hold octafinals at 2:45 p.m., quarterfinals at 5 p.m., semifinals at 7:15 p.m. and finals at 9:15 p.m.

“Most people think we just, like, yell at each other,” Day said about what many people think of debaters.

But they don’t, Southern said. It was an academic discussion of ideas, broken down line by line.

Tidwell said he was excited for the community to see the state’s best debate teams in action.

“The community’s been excited every time we’ve hosted it … The support in the building and in the district has been incredible this year. People seem really excited about getting to do a state event,” Tidwell said.

Contact Amber Friend at

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported Melissa Sowers' name and title. Sowers is sales director of events and planning at the Finney County Convention and Visitors Bureau.