Kansas public schools sweep national policy debate titles for first time

By: - July 25, 2022 11:36 am

Washburn Rural High School seniors Zach Willingham, left, and Jiyoon Park, middle, hold their trophies with coach Tim Ellis in June after winning their second national title of the season. (National Debate and Speech Association)

TOPEKA — Three Kansas public high schools won all four national policy debate championships this year, an unprecedented accomplishment in an arena dominated by private schools.

Policy debate has a rich history of being one of the most esteemed events in high school debate and forensics competitions. This is the first time Kansas schools have placed first at all four national tournaments.

“Kansas is lucky enough to have a lot of those top competitors in one place, where we can debate much more regionally and still challenge our students in a way that prepares them for the national stage,” said Tim Ellis, debate and forensics coach at Washburn Rural High School and president of the Kansas Speech Communication Association.

Policy debate is when a team of two supports a suggested policy change while the opposing team of two argues the opposite. An example topic from one of this year’s competitions: The U.S. federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources.

To begin the national tournament season, Washburn Rural took home the National Debate Coaches Association title for policy debate in early April — a feat the school would repeat at the last tournament in June.

The first title happened in “a tournament that is attended by a lot of the large national programs that engage in debates,” Ellis said. “It’s designed for students to go on and debate in college.”

The two students who won the first title, Jiyoon Park and Zach Willingham, graduated from Washburn Rural in May.

Recent Lawrence Free State High School graduates John Marshall and Serena Rupp were also champions. Their coach, Kelly Thompson, said this was the first time a school from Kansas placed first in the policy debate event at the Tournament of Champions in late April.

“John and Serena are obviously incredibly talented, but they’re also really hard working,” Thompson said. “They committed themselves to each other and to their goals in a way that great teams have to do.”

Shawnee Mission South High School took the third policy debate title in late May at the National Catholic Forensic League Grand National Tournament.

“It was wild,” said Carolyn Cook, Shawnee Mission South High School debate coach. “It was very exciting. You don’t know (who won) until they’re up on stage.”

Cook said she’s thrilled for the two juniors who won, Clare Bradley and Brooklynn Hato, as they look forward to next season.

“The nerdy high school debater I was (would think) like, ‘This is wild,’ ” Cook said. “Because if you would have told me it would be happening when I was younger … that Kansas would have the four titles, I would have thought you were being silly.”

Washburn Rural wrapped up the season of marquee victories by taking home the Richard B. Sodikow policy debate title for the National Speech and Debate Association.

“The policy debate division that we won is the oldest and most prestigious of (debate) events,” Ellis said. “They had to complete 15 rounds over the course of those five days in order to win nationals.”

Traditionally, Ellis said, debate is dominated by private schools. He attributes this to funding.

“You have to travel to tournaments that are in other states to compete against quality competition,” Ellis said. “It requires money to be able to go to those tournaments and fly around the country and debate against the top competition.”

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Margaret Mellott
Margaret Mellott

Margaret Mellott is a Emporia State University graduate of communication and journalism. During their time at ESU, they spent all four years on the campus paper, The Bulletin. She also spent one year with The Campus Ledger at Johnson County Community College. Outside of collegiate journalism, Mellott has also worked on projects for Vintage KC Magazine and Humanities Kansas.