LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 14, 2016) — The similarities between coaching a nationally ranked basketball team and coaching a nationally ranked debate team are undeniable.
First, there is recruitment — spring and summer weeks on the road that slip into months without notice, traveling from one talented high school student’s living room to the next, exhorting the opportunities of their institution.
Then, there is the agonizing choice between one gifted youngster and another, all the time recognizing that there are dozens of coaches out there anxious to steal your rising star. At some point in this time frame, both the athletic and the academic coaches judiciously distribute the available scholarships.
Teams are finally assembled and months of practice begin — one team in the gym, one team in the library, but both making freshman mistakes, learning to trust their team and their coach, finding a way to win, and celebrating together when it all finally gels.
Then, the coaches and teams face competition season’s mind-numbing months on the road … together, because that’s the only way to survive the ordeal. They travel from one competition to the next, practice constantly, and sacrifice. Through it all, they are still university students, with classes to attend, exams to take, and family to visit.
At the end of the regular season, if these students and coaches have learned enough and sacrificed enough, they are rewarded with the final challenge, post-season tournaments and a shot at championship glory.
For the first time since 1994, the University of Kentucky has a nationally ranked (top 16) debate team on its way to the national finals in a few weeks with two first-round “byes” in its pocket, and UK Debate Coach David Arnett could not be more proud. After all, as in a basketball tournament, a debate tournament bye is earned by a consistently excellent performance throughout the season.
“Each member of my team spends an average of 40 hours each and every week, from July through April, actively practicing and competing,” Arnett said. “Most of that time is spent in library research, which is comparable to an athletic team’s intense gym practice. That doesn’t include the time they devote to their classes.
“It’s a long, grueling, unforgiving experience, but not without its rewards, especially when it takes you to the finals,” Arnett said.
An average of 50 to 60 universities and colleges will be represented at the National Invitational Debate Tournament, held this year in Binghamton, New York. UK will compete with three two-person competition teams; two of UK’s teams won first-round byes. Only two other schools, the University of California, Berkeley, and Emory University, are represented by two teams with two first-round byes. Only six schools qualified three teams to the National Debate Tournament.
UK’s 10-person tournament debate team includes senior Donald Grasse, senior Jonathan Geldof, junior Ava Vargason, sophomore Theo Noparstak, senior Marcel Roman, sophomore Holmes Hampton, junior Amar Adam, freshman Calen Martin, freshman Jacinda Rivas and freshman Cameron Baller.
Grasse, Geldof, Vargason and Noparstak received the first-round byes. Roman has qualified for the National Debate Tournament four times, while Hampton has qualified twice.
The debate team is housed in the UK College of Communication and Information, but the debate students’ majors are all across the board. Some are fairly predictable, like political science or pre-law, others not so much. Varguson, is a junior majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in gender studies, Arnett’s first in 20 years of coaching, and “she’s killing it,” Arnett said. “Ava is the first female with a first round tournament bye since 1986.”
The team’s cumulative grade-point average is an enviable 3.8.
Debating is more than just public speaking, although the same confidence is required, said Arnett. The team must research both the pros and the cons of an issue, because each competitor must be able to attack and defend either point of view with cold hard facts. They must be physically prepared as well; a typical tournament lasts for three 12-hour days.
The nation’s university-affiliated debate teams all receive a very broad topic in July that will be the topic of the national debate in April, nearly a year later. The questions are deliberately vague and complicated, like “Should America reduce its armed forces worldwide?”
“And no one knows if they will be defending the pro or the con point of view. So the students have to keep up with current events at the micro level. They have to predict what the opposition will bring up. It makes for a long, arduous experience,” Arnett said. “But I believe with this team, we can take it all the way.”