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6 MCHS students return from state championship with trophies

Ben McCanna
Five members of the Moffat County High School speech and debate team stand next to the program’s overflowing trophy case. Six MCHS students returned with trophies from the state championship meet in Fort Collins earlier this month. Pictured above, from left, are John Kirk, Skyler Leonard, Matt Balderston, Ben East and Zeb Strickland. Ryan Neece is not pictured.
Ben McCanna





Five members of the Moffat County High School speech and debate team stand next to the program’s overflowing trophy case. Six MCHS students returned with trophies from the state championship meet in Fort Collins earlier this month. Pictured above, from left, are John Kirk, Skyler Leonard, Matt Balderston, Ben East and Zeb Strickland. Ryan Neece is not pictured.
Ben McCanna

On the second floor at Moffat County High School, midway down the southern corridor, sits a trophy case.

Behind the locked glass doors are trophies, medals and plaques for the school’s speech and debate team.

Skyler Leonard, a junior and member of the team, said the case is full.



“It got to the point where we ran out of room,” Leonard said. “Now, new trophies sit in the closet.”

Leonard, along with five of his teammates, recently returned from a meet with more trophies.



On March 17 and 18, the MCHS students competed against an estimated 50 Colorado high schools at the state championship in Fort Collins.

Leonard and his debate partner, MCHS junior John Kirk, took third place out of 57 teams in public forum debate.

MCHS seniors Zeb Strickland and partner Ryan Neece placed in the top eight of 57 teams. Their exact place is unknown because officials don’t break ties.

MCHS juniors Matt Balderston and Ben East took fourth place out of 19 teams in cross-examination.

The Bulldogs performed well against stacked odds, the students said. Other schools in Colorado have more time, money and resources dedicated to their speech and debate programs.

Moffat County students do their research on their own time, with their own hands, which is not the case elsewhere, the students contend.

Debate differences

There are several differences between cross-examination and public forum debates, Balderston said.

“In CX we use evidence to prove that we’re believable and logical,” he said. “PFers rely more on just argumentation, and their style of speaking.”

Balderston said cross-examination teams amass large amounts of articles and data over the course of a school year.

“We use a ton of evidence,” he said of cross-examination debates. “We carry around big old tubs of evidence, expandos (expansion folders) filled with hundreds upon thousands of pieces of paper filled with evidence that we can use to persuade a judge.”

“Whereas we have a folder,” Kirk said of public forum debates.

Public forum debate is more about confidence than evidence, Leonard said.

“What I’ve taught the incoming freshman … is ‘Act like you’re winning.’ There’s no other way about it,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re losing on every single argument, if you’re confident and you portray that to a judge, there’s a good chance you could win that debate.”

In cross-examination, students debate over a single topic throughout the course of the school year, Balderston said.

This year, for example, CX teams in Colorado studied the pros and cons of maintaining U.S. troop levels in several foreign countries.

“Our topic is military presence around the world, so we have six topic countries — Japan, South Korea, Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Afghanistan,” Balderston said.

Depending on the meet, Balderston and East might argue for or against maintaining troop levels.

In public forum debates, on the other hand, students deal with different topics every month, Strickland said.

“The definition of a public-forum debate is it’s supposed to be ripped from the headlines for a person off the street to judge,” he said. “So, basically, we want soccer moms as our judges so we can speak to them and persuade them why, say, North Korea is more of a threat than Iran, or why Wikileaks poses a threat.

“It’s stuff that normal people don’t know much about, but they’ve heard about. And we explain to them what the issue is.”

Kirk put a fine point on the artistry of public forum.

“We’re very good at (BSing),” he said.

Despite varying degrees of evidence needed to win, debaters for both cross-examination and public forum still need to do their research before a debate.

For MCHS students, research occurs on their own time rather than during school hours.

This, they said, is why they perform so well against the bigger, better funded districts on the Front Range.

Beating the big boys

Kirk said the MCHS team is usually outnumbered, and by a wide margin.

“It’s a very competitive field and we’re pretty disadvantaged when it comes to numbers,” he said. “We’ve got, at the most, 20 people on the team, whereas these guys have a class during the school day, and they compete for positions.

“(Leonard) and I kicked out two Cherry Creek teams and they’ve got 150 people on their squad. We’ve got 20.”

MCHS has a long history of remaining competitive against larger schools, as evidenced by the school’s overflowing trophy case.

The secret lies in the unique approach by the coaches, Kirk said. They’re hands-off.

“We’re not pampered by the coaches,” he said. “The help that some teams get from their coaches is so significant that the individual competitors don’t know how to gather the resources and form their arguments.”

Kirk contends coaches at other schools compile the tubs of evidence for their students to present.

“These coaches can give them a folder with evidence and tell them how to run it,” he said. “We have to learn to argue and develop arguments by ourselves.

“So … when there’s a crazy, unique argument, we know how to … formulate a strategy against that argument, whereas these guys have only had set arguments or guidelines to run.”

“They’re spoon-fed,” Balderston said.

Strickland said a lack of resources is a benefit to their team.

“I, personally, think we put forth a lot of effort because we don’t have the resources handed to us,” he said. “We don’t have a debate class. We have to work to make ourselves better.

“If we want to win, we have to put forth the effort.”

Kirk said that’s not a slight against their coaches.

“We’re not throwing our coaches under the bus,” he said. “They have found a way where we succeed.

“So, they give us a little bit, and if they think our arguments are too crazy, they’ll say, ‘No, you have to back off.’ But, we do the majority of formulating our arguments so that they work the best in the field.”

“It gives you the ability to think for yourself,” East said.

Kirk said team members pair up over weekends to practice.

“It’s a lot of work on our own time,” he said. “We have practices Tuesday and Thursday for two hours. But, Sky and I are good friends, Matt and Ben are good friends. And so are Ryan and Zeb. So, we spend a lot of time at each others’ houses working on cases.”

Sometimes the practice sessions turn sour, but that’s a good thing, Kirk said.

“There’s a lot of clash,” he said. “If I present something and Sky doesn’t necessarily agree with it, we’ll argue to find a resolution between it.

“So, we come up with the best arguments for our cases. It’s essential for a partnership. I mean, you look at some (teams), and maybe they have phenomenal speakers, but if they can’t work with each other, they’re not going to win.”

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