The Payson High School Debate team is indisputably on a roll.
The team, coached by Frontier Elementary School teacher Wayne Gorry, pulled off a third-place finish in the 1A, 2A, 3A State Speech and Theater Tournament this month at Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop.
The team, which is tiny compared to many debate teams around Arizona, has placed among the top three teams for three consecutive years. Formed just five years ago, the team has sent representatives to the national competition the past two years.
The team's small size makes winning on the state or national level far more challenging.
At debate tournaments, team members compete in a number of special events in addition to the traditional team or policy debate. These include 10 individual events, such as individual debate, persuasive speaking, extemporaneous speaking and oral interpretation of literature.
While six students carry the load for PHS, the other 14 schools in the tournament had much larger debate teams and therefore many more event entries.
"Debate is growing in popularity in some places," Gorry said. "A lot of kids here seem to be intimidated by it."
First-place River Valley High School of Bullhead City, for example, had 53 students on its team, second-place Valley Christian High School had 23, and fourth-place Snowflake High School had 30. Payson took third place with just six team members.
Christina Riepel, a junior who took third in extemporaneous speaking at the state tournament, explained that this year's nationwide debate subject is privacy. Or, as it's stated in the debate world: "Resolved: the U.S. federal government should significantly increase the protection of privacy in one or more of the following areas in the United States: consumer information, employment, medical records and search and seizure."
Rose Galhotra, a junior who is the undefeated state champion in policy debate, elaborated.
"You pick one or more of those areas and you come up with a way where you can improve privacy over the status quo, like maybe ban the practice of racial profiling, where police officers pull over people based on their race and then search their cars."
Matt Williams, a senior, is the reigning state champion in extemporaneous debate and he finished fourth in impromptu at the state tournament. In January he was invited to Nashville as one of the top 15 speakers in the nation, where he placed third.
He explained the difference between extemporaneous and impromptu.
"With extemporaneous, you have 30 minutes to prepare a speech on one of three topics about current events, and then you give a seven-minute speech. With impromptu, they give you three topics that are something like quotes, abstract ideas, and you have a couple of minutes to prepare a five-minute speech."
Junior Beth Waldrop and sophomore Ashley Lewis specialize in the interpretive events. Waldrop, who took fifth in humorous interpretation, said the event involves a work of literature with two or more characters.
"You can't use costumes or props, and you have to act it out without looking at each other," she said, "but you still have to show character."
Lewis, who competed in individual debate, also known as the Lincoln-Douglas debate, said it is more interpretive than standard debating events. "It's the opposite of policy, the antithesis of policy," she said. "It's actually more like a moral debate. You have to have a value and you basically try to prove why yours is better."
Lewis also competed in the poetry reading competition, where she finished fourth by reading a group of poems on domestic violence. "I picked the subject because there was one poem in the group I really liked," she said, "and chances are if you get good poems, you don't have to be as good an actress."
Actually, Lewis confessed, she prefers interpretive events because she doesn't have to tap into the weighty research the team has compiled in eight or so large plastic storage tubs.
"I do events that don't require boxes," she said. "Boxes are scary."
But those boxes, which are carted to every tournament, are the lifeblood for most of the team. Filled with countless articles from magazines, the information is intricately indexed and color-coded.
"I would venture to say we probably have the most extensive extemporaneous speaking files in the state," Gorry said.
The sixth member of the PHS team, junior Doug Kreie, took fourth in extemporaneous speaking at the state tournament.
Awards aside, however, the team members said the skills they've learned through debate are invaluable.
"It teaches you good communication skills. That's sort of obvious," said Galhotra. "But the other big thing it does is it teaches you to think logically. I find that debate helps my other classes a lot because I'm more knowledgeable about things. I'm able to be more analytical and objective."
Debate also teaches the students how to confidently address an audience, a skill many people in America lack, according to a survey of 3,000 residents. The No. 1 fear expressed by the respondents to the survey was public speaking.
"Even over death and spiders," Waldrop said. "That's weird."
But that shouldn't stop other Payson High School students from joining the debate team, the group said, deferring the last word to Christina Riepel, who promised, "There's nothing to be afraid of."