Overland Park & Leawood

Speech and debate champions by the thousands converging on Overland Park

Blue Valley High School debate student Madison Biggs practiced Tuesday on her humorous interpretation for the national tournament.
Blue Valley High School debate student Madison Biggs practiced Tuesday on her humorous interpretation for the national tournament. The Kansas City Star

Here they come, the nation’s top teenage debaters and speech performers, converging on Overland Park next week. And just what they have in mind? They’re not telling.

Imagine thousands of aggressively smart students bent on trumping each other’s arguments, determined to upstage each other’s shows.

Anticipating debaters’ next moves can be as confounding as a cybersecurity force trying to guess about the ingenuity of hackers, said Josh Anderson, debate coach for Olathe Northwest High School.

“Just as soon as you think your defenses are solid…,” he said. There are “thousands looking for ways to defeat your strategies.”

More than 4,000 students representing more than 1,000 schools are coming to the National Speech and Debate Tournament, having qualified in state district championships nationwide.

Throw in some 1,500 coaches and another 2,000 judges and volunteers and you get what the National Speech and Debate Association calls “the world’s largest academic competition.”

Sometimes the arguments come “rapid fire,” said Northwest senior Alaina Walberg, a veteran who qualified for two previous national tournaments in Birmingham, Ala., and Indianapolis, Ind. The entire debate season is an exercise “in making adjustments on the fly,” she said.

Different teams push new styles or take the topics in unexpected, often personal, directions — with success pivoting on whether they can throw opponents for a loop and on the approval or disapproval of each competition’s judges.

The digital age has given students overwhelming access to information, arguments and video links to any startling new style getting traction with judges.

“When I started, the challenge was in how to find stuff,” said Blue Valley High School debate coach Chris Riffer, who’s been coaching 20 years. “Now the challenge is how do you narrow down all the noise.”

The national tournament brings a wide range of competitions, including policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas debate, extemporaneous speaking, original oratory, Congressional debate and dramatic and humorous interpretation.

The nation’s top 200 duos or individuals in each category will do battle in the Overland Park Convention Center and in school sites and quickly narrow the field to the top 60, then go into a series of rounds to reach the finals by the end of the week.

“The final rounds are the most impressive things you’ll ever see,” said Cathy Wood, a longtime debate coach at Shawnee Mission South High School, and the co-host of the local organizers working with the national organization in coordinating the massive program.

“The students in these finals are going to be future senators and judges and actors,” she said.

Locally grown Hollywood stars Paul Rudd, Rob Riggle and Jason Sudeikis made speech and performance part of their high school training, she said.

Some of the area’s prestigious speech and debate alums are returning as judges, including Judge G. Joseph Pierron Jr. of the Kansas Court of Appeals, American Heartland Theatre director Paul Hough, Musical Theater Heritage artistic director Sarah Crawford, actress Debra Bluford and Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, among others.

School systems across the nation are pushing more speech and debate programming, Riffer said, as a strategy for sparking the deeper critical thinking and communication skills emphasized under the new Common Core state learning standards.

Many nonprofit organizations are supporting debate programming in schools, particularly high-poverty schools, which haven’t had as much access to debate programs in the past, he said, while emerging elite summer camps are promising to give top competitive students that extra edge.

Meanwhile, competitors like Walberg are practicing, trying out what sounds good, testing what will surprise, talking aloud with their partners, “with my parents,” she said, “and anyone who’s willing to listen.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

The National Speech and Debate Tournament

Competitions are open to the public with rounds scheduled between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Events will be held at several Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley schools, plus the Sheraton Overland Park and the Overland Park Convention Center.

For the daily schedule of events, go to www.speechanddebate.org.