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No argument: A peak performance

It’s June, and most high school students are passing their days relaxing, playing with friends, or working summer jobs.

Not so for the four Southern Oregon students chosen to represent the region in the USA World Schools Speech and Debate Invitational in Dallas, Texas. They have spent the first days of summer vacation preparing to face the best debaters and orators from around the world at an international event that more closely resembles a sporting championship than a battle of logic and eloquence.

For Ashland High School students Rob Stallman and Gillian Mullane, the air of competition ramped up Thursday as the South Oregon team found itself competing in the final round of debate, the national championship one win away.

While the team ended up placing second, both coaches and students are proud of what they achieved at the tournament. The event the team competed in, known as World Schools Debate format, is a newer format that the team had to learn as they progressed through the meet.

This year’s national championship was the largest competition ever held in the format, and AHS debate coach Rob Bingham says he couldn’t be more proud of the team.

“They had to learn the ropes of the event in the tournament. They really gelled and went on a run. It was inspirational to see, for sure.”

The invitational, which functions as the national championship for the National Speech and Debate Association, hosted 116 teams from all 50 states, plus an international contingent. Ashland High sent six students to compete in a variety of events. Stallman and Mullane formed half of the South Oregon team, a group that included Sravya Tadepalli, from Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis, and Lorien Deyo, from North Bend High School.

Bingham says the South Oregon team was selected by coaches throughout the region based on their performance throughout the year.

“These are kids who had success throughout the year in competition, but also that we thought could cooperate and were hardworking," he said by phone from Dallas Friday. "And they were.”

Bingham, AHS assistant coach Nikki Thommen, and North Valley High School debate coach Rob Moeny, who worked with the South Oregon team at the national championships, flew out of Medford on June 12 with their teams and have spent a packed week at the competition. In all, the South Oregon team competed in 11 rounds during five days of competition, only losing one round of debate prior to the finals.

Topics at the tournament are a mix of either predetermined subjects that debaters have prepared for in advance, or impromptu topics the team members see only an hour before presenting their side of the argument. Teams must be ready to argue either side; they are told which argument they will be presenting, the affirmative or the negative, ahead of each round.

For the final round the South Oregon team was instructed to argue against the resolution: "This House believes that the United States should significantly curtail its overseas military bases."

Bingham says the team not only had to prepare the argument in just one hour, they had to change the way they debated, as well.

It wasn’t just a change of style that awaited the team in the championship round, either. While most of the tournament took place in the Crown Plaza Hotel in Dallas, the final round took place in the Dallas Sheraton. AHS senior Rob Stallman says he was not prepared for the grand stage that awaited them.

“The most memorable moment of the tournament for me was when I first walked into the ballroom," he said. "I was expecting it to be in a different one, a smaller one. When I realized it was the big room, I took a step back and it kinda hit me that like, this was it, and it was time to step it up.”

The room contained about 2,000 audience members. Stallman said a well-timed quote from the movie "Hoosiers" helped him clear his head.

“It was a tremendous help when Mr. Bingham told me that, ‘The dimensions from the free throw line to the basket were just the same as in our gym back home.’ I was very nervous at first, but after they mic’d me up, the nerves calmed down and I told myself that I was ready to do this.”

Freelance reporter Alec Dickinson lives in Ashland. Reach him at alecalaska@gmail.com.