Travel-heavy season pays off for debatersRosemount’s four top debaters will close the season in three national competitions
By: Nathan Hansen, Rosemount Town Pages
One of the best moments of Rosemount High School’s debate season happened on a really bad weekend for one of its top debaters.
The Irish were in the middle of the first round of a tournament in Des Moines, Iowa last November when Matt Stefanko got the word he had been rejected by one of his preferred colleges.
It was a blow, but Stefanko got support from his teammates, and he used the rejection of motivation in a performance that ultimately led him and partner Lisa Beard to the semifinals of the prestigious competition. The finish earned them the first of two qualifying bids they needed for the national Tournament of Champions that kicks off this weekend at the University of Kentucky.
That performance was one of several convincing results in an impressive season for the Irish. Rosemount debaters have traveled the country more than usual this season, building a resume coach Cort Sylvester calls the most impressive in years at the school. They will continue the season in a trio of national debate tournaments.
Stefanko and Beard, Rosemount’s top policy debate team, compete this weekend at the Tournament of Champions. The team of Ryan Kirkley and Wesley Just will compete next month at the National Catholic Forensic League competition in Baltimore. And In May, Stefanko and Kirkley will compete at the National Forensics League national tournament in Indianapolis.
RHS debaters also swept post-season all-conference awards and Stefanko was named NFL District Student of the Year. It’s the first time an RHS debater has won the award, and Stefanko is the first person to win the award without competing in the extemporaneous speaking category.
“It has been the best (season) in half a dozen years, since 2006-07,” Sylvester said. “In some ways, one could argue it is the best ever, in that we’ve never had a team qualify for both Tournament of Champions and NFL nationals in the same year.”
The Irish debaters have worked a lot of long hours and logged a lot of frequent flyer miles along the way. During the course of the season the policy debate teams of Stefanko-Beard and Kirkley-Just traveled all over the country to compete, from Wake Forest to West Des Moines, Chicago to the University of California Berkeley. The team did some fundraising to pay for travel expenses, and the debaters covered some of the cost themselves. But Sylvester also paid some of the bills to get his students where they needed to go.
It was worth the investment, Sylvester said, because it was clear early on that this year’s debaters had a chance for some extraordinary success. Stefanko and Beard, after debating together only part of a season last year, reached the quarterfinals at the state tournament. Then, Stefanko spent seven weeks at a debate camp over the summer, and other debaters attended camps for shorter periods.
“We wanted to make sure that (Stefanko) in particular got a good return on his investment, so we targeted a few additional national travel opportunities,” Sylvester said.
All four debaters say the rewards have been worth the effort. But there were times, as homework piled up and they dealt with long flights and early-morning competitions, that they wondered what they had gotten themselves into.
“I think definitely, at times, it started to get a little overwhelming … but it’s definitely worth it,” Kirkley said.
All four said this debate season has created opportunities they never would have had otherwise.
“I’ve been to a lot of places I never imagined I’d be able to go, let alone as a kid in high school,” Stefanko said.
In other words, the high points tend to make the lows seem pretty small. Stefanko and Beard got their second TOC bid at Berkeley. And when Beard had to miss the NFL qualifying meet for a scholarship competition, Kirkley stepped in to earn a spot at nationals.
There are plenty of reasons for the team’s success this year. Sylvester said all four students are bright and all have an ability to focus on the issues that matter in their arguments, which this year focus on the value of building an asteroid defense system.
“Matt has a rare but valuable quality as a debater, which is his ability to focus on the right issues and be incredibly persuasive on them in his last rebuttal,” Sylvester said. “He gives as compelling a last rebuttal as all but the top few debaters in Rosemount history.”
That’s pretty high praise, considering some of the other debaters who have come through Rosemount. But in national terms the school is more like the 16 seed that sneaks into the NCAA tournament than the top seed that’s expected to excel. That’s part of what has made this season so satisfying.
“It’s really great, coming from a public school, when you’re trying to compete with those big private school kids,” Stefanko said. “At least for me, it’s really fun to beat those kids.”
All four Rosemount debaters will have at least one more chance to bring home some wins. Sylvester has set a goal of at least four wins in the Tournament of Champions, a win in an elimination round at Catholic Nationals and a top-10 finish at the NFL national tournament.
For the Irish, it would be a nice cap to a great year.