By the end of their high school debate careers, Zach Willingham and Jiyoon Park had gotten used to the respect and fear that the Washburn Rural name inspires in other schools.
They’d hear it in the whispers of the hallways and classrooms of the debate tournaments they attended — “Oh shoot, we have to debate Washburn Rural” — and the seniors could surmise it when they’d debate against teams making arguments tailor-made for one of the giants in Kansas and national high school debate circles.
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It was an earned reputation. In Kansas, the pair was one half of a four-member Washburn Rural team that claimed a Kansas 6A state debate championship, usually regarded as one of the nation’s most competitive, in January.
The duo had also been to the finals of the National Speech and Debate Tournament last year, and nine Washburn Rural teams have placed in the top six over the last seven years. Park’s own brother even won the national championship, also with Washburn Rural, just a few years prior.
But for all the reputation and preparation the pair had undergone in countless hours of practice and tournaments, the pair couldn’t help but feel some nerves as they stepped out, for one last time in their high school debate careers, onto the stage and bright lights of the National Speech and Debate Tournament championship round for policy debate.
How Washburn Rural built a national debate dynasty
Per Washburn Rural debate coach Tim Ellis, there are a litany of reasons for Washburn Rural’s success after success, at the state and national stages, that have made the school “a household name” in high school debate.
The students, first and foremost, are talented and skilled, and they collectively have great drive to continue the program’s success, Ellis said. The school and the school district are also great supporters of the program, and that’s enabled the debate team to travel to tournaments far and wide to hone students’ skills against other top teams in the nation.
But mostly, it’s the camaraderie and team environment that has flourished during Ellis’ tenure as coach.
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“It’s not just a competitive avenue for them,” Ellis said. “It’s also about their friends, where it feels like a family and they want to spend time with each other. They want to work together and share successes, and that environment propels them to spend time and energy on this activity and ultimately be successful.”
Beside creating success, that level of teamwork and community among the students has also played a key part in continuing it.
Each year, upperclassmen are matched with underclassmen in mentor-mentee relationships, and among the national competitors’ biggest supporters were the underclassmen they worked with.
“Every single of the first-year debaters who worked with Sonya (Doubledee), Donna (Jalosjos), Jiyoon and Zach have had the chance to work with some of the best debaters in the nation,” Ellis said. “That mentorship role has spurred their interest and curiosity in setting up a system that I feel really helps empower the next generation of debaters on our team to be successful.”
Here’s how Washburn Rural debate reached national championship stage
Coming off the heels of last year’s trip to the national tournament, Willingham and Park and other members of the Washburn Rural debate squad got to work immediately, preparing new arguments for the fall 2021 debate season.
Most of the team’s research work is done over the summer, and over the course of four weeks, the team spent about 10 hours a day pouring through articles and holding practice rounds, Willingham said. During the school year, practice is every day after school, with about 14 weekends of competition throughout the season.
In policy debate, students around the country prepare arguments around a central resolution, with teams taking sides arguing in favor of a plan or proposal around that resolution (the affirmative), and arguing against it (the negative).
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This year, the resolution asserted that the U.S. federal government should substantially increase its protection of water resources. Willingham and Park found particular success with their affirmative argument, proposing that the Environmental Protection Agency expand its definition of U.S. waters to better include wetlands in protection policies.
The students dominated tournament after tournament, and paired with Doubledee and Jalosjos, the Washburn Rural team went and undefeated in the Kansas 6A state debate tournament in January to become state champions.
In April, Willingham and Park won the National Debate Coaches Association tournament, making Washburn Rural the first Kansas team to ever win that tournament and only the second public school to do so.
Their focus, then, turned to the national tournaments they would compete in, namely the 2022 National Speech and Debate Tournament, held in Louisville, Ky.
“We started researching a lot more intensely than we had for other tournaments, and about a week before, we locked it in and started doing practice debates against the handful of other teams that we thought we might debate during the tournament,” Park said.
Washburn Rural helps cement Kansas as top state for high school debate
Out on the Kentucky Expo Center stage for the championship round on June 17, Willingham took a step back and let the moment sink in.
He didn’t bother to look out into the crowd — the spotlight was too bright, and he knew the sight of hundreds of audience members would make him nervous.
Instead, he and his teammate, Park, set their focus on the task at hand: defending in the negative against the team from Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, Calif. The school has also been a perennial contender for the championship, and in 2021, the school had won the Unger Cup, an award that recognizes the highest performing school across all national tournaments throughout the preceding school year.
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This was the culminating moment of high school debate for Willingham and Park. Neither had been particularly interested in debate as freshman, but after joining, they had found a love for an activity where they’d found several of their closest friends.
In the audience were Doubledee and Jalosjos, who themselves went far in the tournament and ended up placing fifth as a pair. They had debated against Bellarmine earlier in the tournament, and their notes would help Willingham and Park prepare for the most important debate round in their lives.
The championship round came and went, with Washburn Rural arguing against Bellarmine’s proposal to overhaul nuclear waste storage practices that contaminate U.S. drinking water. Despite giving it their all, the pair wouldn’t know who judges had favored until the awards ceremony that Friday evening.
It was a few hours of stress and anxiety, until the moment Willingham and Park heard the announcer first call Bellarmine as the runner-up.
By a 10-3 decision, the pair had won the Harland B. Mitchell national championship trophy in policy debate.
“It took us a few seconds,” Park said. “I don’t think Zach and I had realized at that moment when they announced the other team had gotten second place that we’d won. The amount of emotions, happiness and joy — it was all just surreal.”
Beside the pair’s national championship title, Washburn Rural was also announced as the 2022 winner of the Unger Cup, and Ellis, the head coach, was honored with the Ted Belch Award for policy debate coach of the year.
Ellis said his award was simply a recognition of the outstanding students who have made his job as coach easy.
“They’ve established a legacy of debate as an activity that can be both interesting and fun for students,” Ellis said. “They can work with things they find academically interesting, whether it’s from the research aspect or the critical-thinking aspect. They nurtured that kind of environment for future debaters.”
Willingham and Park graduated from Washburn Rural in May, and they’re headed off to the University of Kansas in the fall — Willingham to study computer science and Park to double major in political science and global international studies.
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But they’re both eager to see their younger teammates continue a legacy of success, with the pair leaving open the possibility to return and coach the friends they’ve made these past few years.
At the end of their high school debate careers, though, they both know they’ve made their mark on debate, both at the state and national levels.
“When you debate a team from Kansas, people maybe used to have this perception that they’d be debating some farmers,” Park said. “But I think that now, especially with the success we’ve had as a state and at Washburn Rural, there’s more recognition for us.”
Rafael Garcia is an education reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @byRafaelGarcia.