Up for debate: Elli Kuenzel and Krystal Rountree

Ashland High seniors Elli Kuenzel and Krystal Rountree are competitive and argumentative, but only when representing their school.

The 18-year-old girls are passionate policy debaters and have worked hard to take their skills to a new level. Policy debate is where teams advocate for and against a resolution that calls for policy change in the government. The girls' daily hours of practice, research and strategizing gave them a big payoff: an invitation to compete in the National Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, the ultimate national championship for high school debaters.

Although support from the high school and Ashland's youth activities levy help AHS debaters compete in and often win local, state and regional debate tournaments, competing on the national circuit is costly, and AHS could not dedicate funds to underwrite travel costs and entrance fees at that level.

Kuenzel and Rountree, however, were determined to achieve their full potential. They worked summer and part-time jobs to raise money and, with help from their families, the girls made strong showings in tournaments in Texas, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta, and California, finishing their regular season by qualifying for this year's Tournament of Champions, to be held in May.

Debate team coach Wendy Werthaiser is proud of the girls, saying, "I'm always so floored by the level of commitment needed to be successful. Krystal and Elli have displayed an amazing amount of determination and dedication required to compete on the national circuit. Their success is something our team is so proud of and we'll definitely be cheering them on as they make a name for Ashland Debate at the TOC."

Kuenzel was admitted early decision to Emory University, which has one of the country's top college debate teams, and will enroll there this fall. Rountree is still deciding where to attend college and has received several scholarship offers.

They recently took some time out from debate practice to talk with the Daily Tidings about their recent success.

DT: What are your favorite subjects in school?

KR: Literature and art throughout the ages, French and government.

EK: I like social studies.

DT: What do you like to do outside of school?

KR: I love running; I am currently training for a marathon. I also love traveling and have lots of relatives in Italy. And of course outside of school, I do lots and lots of debate work. I've gone to debate camp every year since my freshman year.

EK: Debate.

DT: Do you have trouble balancing school and your outside interests?

KR: Yes. I have had a very hard time balancing school and the workload that policy debate requires. Not to mention a job to pay for all the debate trips we go on. Because of debate, my grades have suffered, but I feel the trade off was worth it for an activity I love so much.

EK: Yes. Debate is so time-consuming that often my school work suffers. I can spend about 13 hours a day preparing for a debate.

DT: What do you want to do after you graduate high school?

KR: I want to graduate from college, travel around the world as often as I can and go to law school.

EK: I want to go to college, and law school, and then be a lawyer. I think I will major in political science or international studies.

DT: Talk about your college plans.

KR: I am still not sure what college I will attend in the fall, but I want to become a lawyer and work for the UN dealing with human rights issues

EK: Next year, I'm going to be attending Emory University in Atlanta. They have a really good debate program and after having to do everything for ourselves, I wanted to go to a big program and have the opposite experience.

DT: Tell us about policy debate.

KR: Each debate takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours. You debate in teams of two and each speaker gives two speeches, a constructive and a rebuttal. We carry buckets and buckets of research and information. Literally, big tubs of paperwork to every competition. We have to be really prepared and talk fast.

EK: In the world of policy debate, there is a highly developed national circuit of very competitive major tournaments, dominated by teams with larger squads, much bigger budgets, and expert college debate-trained coaches — things we obviously don't have here in Ashland. The competition is very intense, but a lot of fun.

DT: Talk about the National High School Tournament of Champions.

KR: To get to the TOC you have to qualify by receiving two bids, which you get by getting to a certain round at nationally recognized debate tournaments. It is really competitive because kids from all over the nation compete.

EK: We had one basic goal: to become as good at this as we could. There was some of that David and Goliath thing involved; some people said there was no way two girls from a little school in Oregon could do it. Matching the research and preparation efforts of the powerhouse teams wasn't easy, and we had a long way to go to improve our skills to get to a competitive level. But we love this stuff. We pretty much had to keep pushing ourselves until we got where we wanted to be.

DT: Talk about something you have done that makes you proud.

KR: We are the first team to qualify for the Tournament of Champions in 10 years, and because of our success in policy debate, we single-handedly initiated Ashland High School into the Barkley Forum, a very prestigious debate tournament held at Emory University. And we showed people that it is possible to perform on the national circuit.

EK: A lot of our debate accomplishments have made me proud, but I think particularly at the Emory tournament this year, I was really proud because it's one of the biggest tournaments of the year. And after the preliminary rounds, Krystal and I were ranked the fourth team overall. Also, I got seventh individual best speaker, which was a big honor.

DT: Tell us about the support you received.

EK: Our coach, Wendy Werthaiser, and our principal, Jeff Schlecht, supported and cooperated with our desire to push ourselves at the national circuit level. Without that, we would never have had the chance to compete there. My friends have also been really encouraging, although sometimes they wish I had more time to hang out with them.

DT: Tell us about someone at school who inspires you or makes you proud.

KR: Someone who inspires me at school is one of my good friends, Tim Harper. He always works hard and tries to be the best debater he can.

EK: My favorite teachers have been Jane Claussen and Matt McKinnon. Debate wise, however, my real inspiration has come from our coaches, Andrew Baker and Tony Johnson, and our lab leaders that we have had at debate camp over the years, especially Jessica Yeats, Cyrus Ghavi and Ryan Burke.

DT: Tell us about someone in your family who inspires you or makes you proud.

KR: My mother has helped me a lot in pursuing my dream. She works extra hours to pay for my debate trips and is always very supportive of me, and she doesn't let the competitive nature of debate come between us or influence me too much.

EK: My dad inspires me a lot because he works so hard with us and devotes so much of his life to debate to help us. I know we couldn't have done any of this without him.

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