The Nikiski High School debate team talked circles around the competition earlier this month, earning the top three spots in the state drama, debate and forensics tournament in Anchorage.
Facing about 26 teams from more than a dozen schools statewide, four pairs of debaters qualified for the state competition, and three of those went on to the semifinals.
"That's never happened before in Alaska," said team coach Joe Rizzo.
The students spent nearly a year preparing for the competition, which this year focused on ocean policy. In the fall, debaters were given a resolution: "Be it resolved, the United States federal government should establish an ocean policy to substantially increase protection of marine natural resources."
Students then thought up various potential harms to the ocean environment and ways to fix those problems. The teams presented their arguments, while competitors tried to shoot holes in the plans.
For example, team captain Ramona Baker, the team's only senior, and her partner, junior Sharon Miller, argued that oil should be replaced by renewable energy sources to protect the marine environment from spills and pollution.
Sophomore Laura Rooper and her partner, junior Paul Morin, argued bottom trolling should be eliminated to prevent the destruction of coral reefs.
Baker noted that the arguments weren't designed to attack fishing policies, though. She said the assignment was to think of specific ways to protect the marine habitat in general to protect fishing and other uses of the resources far into the future.
The teams actually did so well at the competition that one pair had to drop out to avoid facing teammates in the final rounds.
"Of all the medals they brought home from different events, I was more proud of that moment when they made the decision of what was best for the team, not the individual," Rizzo said.
In addition to the top three debate slots, the larger drama, debate and forensics team also brought home the first-place team debate award and the second team overall award. Individual team members also earned a number of awards.
Josh Ball and Baker placed fifth with their duet piece, while Baker also earned a first-place award in extemporaneous speaking. Rita Knorr placed sixth in expository speaking. J.R. Cox, Ball, Morin and Miller earned a second-place award in reader's theater; while Kara Bethune, Jessie Bowlin, Joanina Gettemy, Margy Harford, Erica Thye and Knorr placed sixth in that category. Cox also earned a fifth-place award in humorous interpretation.
The team, which raises all its own money to participate in the five preliminary tournaments throughout the year as well as the state competition, has a history of excelling. Now six years old, the Nikiski team has won the state debate championship three times.
Team members said their experiences with debate are among the highlights of their high school experiences.
"You learn way more than you do in school," Miller said. "You learn current events, and when it's over, you still have that general knowledge."
"(In school), you learn about George Washington, but you never learn about Saddam Hussein," Baker agreed.
And, she added, "It's addictive. I think, like running, debate releases endorphins into the brain."
Rizzo added that the team also meets the needs of students who might "coast" through classes.
"It takes kids who normally breeze through school because they excel and puts them in a world where the go up against the best students from other schools," he said. "It's not like not doing your homework. If you're not prepared for a debate, you look like a fool. And no one wants to look like a fool."
While the drama, debate and forensics season is pretty much over for the year, area residents will have an opportunity to see what the students do later this month.
The team will host their fund-raiser, "Encore, Encore," an evening of entertaining skits, reader's theaters and presentations, April 24.
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