There's no argument about it. McKendree University's debate team has made the leap from a small club to a powerhouse in the world of college debate.
"When I was on the team in 2005 there was a total of about 10 people," said Jeff Jones, a former McKendree student who is now the debate program's assistant coach. "We'd go to tournaments and it was less about trying to win than it was about fitting in and proving that we belonged."
In 2006, McKendree debaters were invited to participate in a select national tournament.
"We chose not to go," Jones said. "We didn't feel like we could compete."
But today McKendree is taking on all comers. Head coach Joe Blasdel said for the first time the school has two teams of debaters placed in the top five nationally ranked pairs.
Juniors Mat Myles and Brad Thomas are third in the country while seniors Ian Reynolds and Ben Reid are fifth. Instead of passing on national tournaments, the school this year has qualified four teams for the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence championships to be held starting March 17 at the University of Nevada Reno. Two teams of juniors, Lucas Barker and Sarah DeBruyckere and Alex Cunningham and Brent Nicholson will join the two top five pairings in the championships.
"Things have really come together for us quickly," Blasdel said. "Prior to the 2010-11 season, the highest-ranked team we had was 12th. Last year Reid and Nicholson topped that by making it to sixth. And now we have two top five teams. I couldn't be more proud of our people."
The program has been built with a unique mix of local and national talent. The metro-east has long been a hot bed of high school debate and several team members are from two of its top programs, Belleville East and Belleville West. Eight of the debate program's 25 members are graduates of the Belleville District 201 schools including Barker, DeBruyckere, Myles and Reynolds.
Reid and Thomas are from Kansas City, Mo., and they joined the team as a package deal. Now they hope to help recruit more young talent from the Kansas City area high school debate ranks.
"It was completely by accident that I ended up here," Reid said. "I attended Truman State for one year and had to leave because of medical problems. I wasn't sure what I was going to do and planned to go to community college for a year. Then I got a message from Joe that he'd like me to come to McKendree and I said, 'Why not?'"
Thomas said the pair appreciates the support McKendree debaters got from school leaders and the knowledge teammates and coaches share to sharpen each others' skills.
According to Reynolds, the key to the success of a program is putting multiple talented teams together to create a culture of winning and allow the teams push each other to keep getting better.
"I've learned more in debate than I could from any instructor," Reynolds said. "It has increased my breadth and depth of knowledge and it has taught me how to think critically."
"Debate has pushed me to have a drive to learn more about everything from science to math to philosophy," Reid said. "You're forced to learn or lose. And I don't like to lose."
In high school and college policy debate teams of two people argue the pros and cons of specific political topics. They know the general subject area. But they don't find out until just before a round starts what the specific resolution they will discuss will be. To be prepared they spend countless hours searching for evidence from experts that can be applied to any possible scenario which could arise.
Throughout the year, college debaters spend the bulk of their weekends traveling across the country to tournaments where they compete against schools large and small. Unlike in athletics, programs aren't divided by school size.
As exciting as it is that McKendree's debate team has grown in its 18-year history to be competitive with some of the largest and best known schools in the country, Blasdel said he is even more excited about the future.
"Definitely for the next couple of years we should be very good," Blasdel said. "We have a very big junior class right now. Six of our eight going to nationals are juniors. I would expect us to compete for a national championship next year. And we have a group of sophomores and freshman who haven't really had the opportunity to show what they can do yet. I can't wait to see."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at email@example.com or call 239-2626.