In certain hours Saturday afternoon, when competition rounds were rotating and competitors momentarily without a home, dozens of small armies of the state’s best high school debaters sat in circles in the Garden City High School cafeteria — working, snacking and lying in wait before their next chance at the championship.

The moments were a portion of the State Debate Tournament, a championship competition for 5A and 6A class debaters from all across Kansas.

Over 300 debaters — plus a couple hundred coaches and judges — from nearly 50 schools took over the campus Friday and Saturday, resting in the hallways and debating in dozens of classrooms. For the first time in 10 years andjust  the third time in the tournament’s 109 years, the elite contest had come to Garden City.

As the Saturday competition completed its preliminary round, the home team — seven of the eight GCHS debate students that had qualified for the competition — sat tucked away in GCHS Debate Coach Russ Tidwell’s classroom, eating, joking and reviewing ballots from earlier debates.

None of the four two-person teams, made up of Caitlyn Harman and Trevor Southern, Alyssa Day and Andrea Moya, Mueller and Reagan Wright, and Andrew Unruh and Jessica Angulo, broke through the preliminary rounds, but they were proud of their work.

The tournament was a challenging, brutal and mean one, Tidwell told his team. Tidwell said he was proud of the students work. In many ways, it was a building year, preparing students for what comes next. In the wake of the losses, he encouraged them to take a break, and then come back and watch some of the other competitors in action.

“It’s just been fun to watch them work and struggle and … bounce back from adversity. It’s been fun to watch them work together,” Tidwell said.

The tournament provided a level of debate of which they didn’t usually get to see, they were well-prepared and succeeded in certain areas, and their mistakes or losses were still hard-fought.

“I don’t mind losing as long as I learned something from the round, honestly,” Wright said.

For the competing seniors — Day, Harman and Southern — the day was “heartwarming and heartbreaking,” Harman said. The loss was rough, but it still topped off years of good memories and watching their younger teammates grow into the program.

To them, debate gave them skills that will last decades. It will prepare them for job interviews and public speaking, Unruh said, or researching and pinpointing information, Moya said. And it changed them. They got better at debating, but they also became more comfortable and confident.

“It’s definitely helped. I used to not talk at all, and now teachers actually know I’m in their class,” Day said.

The school district and school has always been supportive of the debate program, Tidwell said, but the difference between some of the western and eastern programs was not lost on the students. With discrepancies in funding, access and number of judges, the activity is not “a level playing field,” Southern said.

“I think just recognition that these programs even exist are a major thing, because as you see a lot of school funding getting cut, you see arts funding being one of the first ones. And that’s where we’re affected,” Harman said. “Academic (programs) are just as important as athletic. They both teach you very different things, but you get a lot out of each one.”

Coaches from other schools had nothing but good things to say about the tournament. The facility was one of the best in the state, and the operations were smooth and hospitable.

And they were glad to celebrate and compete in an activity they loved and loved to pass on to their students, one that combined competition and education, gave students the tools to support what they believe, and pushed them to deeply understand information and present it in myriad ways.

“They have a lot of fun with it, too, because, in addition to the education aspects of this thing, this is a game, too,” said Scott Bonnet, debate coach at Emporia High School. “And it’s a game that a lot of them find is really, really fun to play.”

Final results of the tournament were not available as of press time Saturday night and will be in Tuesday's Telegram.


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