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Statement Wins

Thursday, March 21, 2019
photo of students debating

Trinity Debate breaks onto national scene

by Jeremy Gerlach

What makes life on the Trinity debate team special?

Well, besides beating heavyweights Harvard and Michigan, getting scholarship money, having the chance to travel to national tournaments as a first-year, and receiving personal attention from dedicated faculty coaches, Ian Dill ’20 says it’s got to be the food.

“The team pays for our meals, at actual restaurants. Ethiopian food, Indian food, nice food,” Dill says. “And that’s an edge when we’re competing against other teams that have just eaten Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, right before an hours-long debate tournament.”

And while other teams are working on upset stomachs, Trinity has pulled off enough “upsets” this year to ditch its underdog status. The University’s relatively tiny debate program, with a roster of regulars just in the single digits, has grown into a national powerhouse.

This year alone, Trinity debate has placed in the Elite 8 in the American Debate Association National Championship Tournament, held at the University of Georgia, March 7-11. The tournament featured 80 individual teams from 37 schools around the country, including Emory University, Indiana University, the University of Kentucky, the University of Michigan, the Naval Academy, and Wake Forest University among others.

But compared to these programs, Trinity runs debate differently. Even as a smaller school, its program offers competitive scholarship packages, gives students a chance to conduct their own research, and gives first-year debaters a chance to see action right away.

Dill and Khullar collage

This approach is already paying dividends. At the March championships, a junior-junior team of Dill and Ansh Khullar ’20 advanced to the quarterfinals, defeating teams from Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Mary Washington. They narrowly lost to the eventual tournament champions from the University of Georgia on a close split decision.

Khullar, a Dallas native who’s studying political science and economics, and plans to attend law school, says he came to Trinity specifically because of the opportunities the debate team offered him.

“The scholarships they offer here made this a good choice,” Khullar says. “And while other debate programs have professors doing your research and prep for you, at Trinity we get to build our own research skills. That’s going to be huge for law school and what I want to do in the future.”

Dill, who’s from Twin Cities, Minn., and is studying economics and environmental studies, debated all four years in high school and was also recruited by Trinity’s program.

Lair and Grimsley collage

At that same tournament, Trinity’s all first-year team of Sam Lair ’22 and Sam Grimsley ’22 made it to the Sweet Sixteen, defeating teams from Emory, Michigan State, and Kentucky before falling to Indiana University. This impressive result was the best overall finish by an all first-year team at the tournament.

Lair is an economics major with a passion for skiing. Grimsley, a political science major, originally planned to attend an international college, but didn’t find any debate opportunities with those schools. Looking at Trinity, Grimsley saw a chance to join Dill and Khullar, two debaters he’d heard of and competed against in high school.

“I remembered that Ansh and Ian had both won a national championship, so I looked on their high school wikis and saw they had both ended up at Trinity,” Grimsley says. “So I thought about the team composition here, and I liked the idea of a smaller team, but also one that was this powerful.”

A high school debate teammate of Grimsley’s who went to Emory, for example, still hasn’t gotten to travel to national tournaments because of the sheer size of Emory’s debate team. 

“But at Trinity, you’re going to get immediate opportunities,” Grimsley adds.

Jensen and Roark collage

These opportunities come from the unique composition of debate at Trinity. The program favors research over rhetoric and hard work over raw, persuasive talent. That focus is shaped by professor William Jensen, director of debate, and professor Collin Roark, assistant director of debate.

“We get individual focus from the coaches,” Dill says. “And that’s another draw of Trinity: Our professors actually teach classes, but not so many that they don’t have time for us. We meet on the weekends, have team dinners, hang out even outside of debate, and that makes us more cohesive.”

“[Our professors] give up a lot of their personal time to make sure we succeed in tournaments,” Khullar adds. “They’re also just really enthusiastic and passionate about this activity—a lot of other coaches burn out, but I think they’re more passionate than anyone else in the community.”

And this personal attention gives Trinity debaters another edge: a chance to develop specific strategy for each competition. This means the team crafts tailor-made content that plays to a variety of judges.

Debate team practices in Ruth Taylor

“You’re going to get judges from across the political spectrum, so we’ll tailor different points (of argument) based on who’s evaluating us,” Khullar says. “So, when we’re defending a topic like ‘no first use for nuclear weapons,’ for one judge we may frame the argument that nuclear weapons are a tool to extend the U.S.’s coercion of other countries in the international arena, whereas for other judges we’ll argue that these weapons are a tool to make the U.S. a more credible actor that will negotiate better treaties in the future.”

Up next for the debate squad is the final tournament of the year: the National Debate Tournament, held March 21-25 at the University of Minnesota. Representing the Tigers there will be the teams of Dill and Lair, and Grimsley and Nathan Glancy ’22 (economics major).

And while these two teams are already scouting out the competition judges, they’ll also be scouting out the top restaurants in Minneapolis. Because the team may say they’re staying hungry for the competition, but there’s no rule at Trinity that says you can’t eat well at the same time.

“Honestly,” Grimsley grins, “that’s the best thing for team morale.”