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Gonzaga Debate Team Tries To Build National Reputation Success Of Program Would Enhance School’s Academic Standing

The student who talked his way to a national debate crown at Gonzaga University is talking about winning again, this time as coach.

Bill DeForeest wants to build on Gonzaga’s reputation as a national debate power, and bring home another big trophy. His debaters just missed winning last spring.

“I love competition,” DeForeest said, describing debate as the sport of the intellect.

The team is a showcase for GU’s top thinkers, and its growing success is seen as a measure of the university’s excellence.

“Debate is very important to us,” said Rev. Kevin Waters, dean of arts and sciences.

That success nearly came undone a few years ago.

Scandal rocked the team in 1992.

An assistant coach was forced to resign after admitting to a love affair with a high school debate student. The former head coach quit in protest, and a number of team members left the university.

DeForeest, who won his national title in 1989, took over the team on temporary assignment that fall to help the university rebuild its program.

If anyone knows how to win, it should be DeForeest. He began his debate career at O’Dea High School in Seattle, and his national title as a sophomore rates as the only time GU has won a national championship in some 50 years of competition.

DeForeest is recruiting top prep debaters in the region, and enjoys the financial backing of the university for scholarships and travel funds.

Along with second- and third-place finishes in the national tournament last spring, GU also won first place in the Northwest regional tournament.

In the first competition since classes resumed, Gonzaga captured a third-place trophy in South Carolina last month at an invitational tournament for the country’s top teams.

“We had to prove that we were still up there,” said Ian McLoughlin, a junior who was on last spring’s second-place team at nationals. “I think we did that.”

These students take debate seriously, studying up to 10 hours a day before tournaments, and maybe three hours a day the rest of the time.

They learn to argue their views effectively and challenge the other team’s statements.

Each debate centers on a topic provided by the Cross Examination Debate Association. This year, the students are debating U.S. foreign policy toward Mexico. Last year, the topic was the exploitation of ocean resources.

This may sound difficult and complicated, but once the topic is mastered and competition begins, “You’ve got the adrenaline running,” said Will Brewer, a junior who is on GU’s top team.

Brewer and the others like the challenge.

“If you give a really good speech it’s such a rush,” said Sarah Peterson, who graduated from Mead High School with a 3.96 grade point average and a second-place regional debate trophy.

Freshman John Voight is another star recruit out of Mead. He was a National Merit Scholarship winner, and scored 1,470 out of a possible 1,600 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Voight said debate adds a dimension to the typical college education. “I wouldn’t have learned about Japanese rearmament or North Korean nuclear proliferation in any other class,” he said.

Inevitably, debate gets compared with athletics.

Coach DeForeest, who is studying for a master’s degree at Washington State University in Spokane, said the success of the debate team may be more important than athletics because it enhances GU’s academic reputation.

DeForeest plans to coach the team through the end of the current school year, and will be replaced by Cornell University graduate Jamey Dumas, who was recruited in a nationwide search last year for a permanent head coach. Dumas is serving as assistant coach this year.

All of the work is getting noticed.

“It’s a strong program. There’s no doubt about it,” said Professor Steve Hunt, the current president of the national debate association.

Hunt, who teaches at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, said Gonzaga’s performances at nationals last spring were remarkable.

“For a small liberal arts college, that is one of the finest records of all time,” Hunt said.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo