March madness for debate

No. 2-ranked debate duo heads to national championship tournament this week

University junior Kelly Brill and senior Jonathan McGuire enter the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence ranked the No. 2 debate team in the country. Championships are held at Northern Arizona University through March 23.

3/18/2014 | By: Natalie Savidge  |

2014 National Debate Team Matchups

Just as NCAA basketball tournament brackets are filled in with the top-performing college teams this week, the annual National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence recognizes the finest competition in American parliamentary debate. And just as college basketball teams earn rankings for their season's performance, so do college debate teams, which began the ranking process last fall.

"The team has captured tournament victories at several events this season and is looking to have one of the best overall finishes ever," University of Nevada, Reno debate team coach Phil Sharp said.

With the No. 2 debate team in the nation right now, and another duo ranked No. 18, it looks promising for one of the five two-student University teams making the final bracket. 

"Our top team, Jonathan and Kelly, beat out the only team ranked above them in a head-to-head competition in November 2013," Sharp, who is also the University's forensics director in the College of Liberal Arts, said.

University senior Jonathan McGuire and junior Kelly Brill entered 11th place before the 2013 tournament of excellence, which was hosted by the University for the first time last year. Out of 51 colleges and universities in attendance at the first of the season-ending championship tournaments, the squad finished 10th, and then finished with a final season ranking of eighth out of 197 universities across the country.

This year, the squad - collectively - out of 173 schools, was ranked No. 2 by the National Parliamentary Debate Association going into the first of two final tournaments. Four students (two teams) competed in the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., which took place March 16 through 18. The Championships, also held at Northern Arizona University March 20-23, will have 10 students (five teams) from the University competing against approximately 160 teams.

"Our squad is ahead of teams like Whitman, Oregon, Rice, Berkeley, Pacific, Texas Tech and Utah," Sharp said. "We think we have a good chance, but with any tournament, you have to survive each round, you have to give it your best until it's over."

Standout Players

Sharp has taken the debate team to nationals all six years he's headed the program. During his first season, he coached the University's Max Alderman and David Pena to an unprecedented first place at both of the national tournaments in 2009. And in each of the subsequent four years, the University has had at least one duo finish in the top-10 of one of the national tournaments. 

"The No. 2 ranking is our best overall team ranking of any team I've coached," he said. "The hours of practice and research they've accomplished to get to this point is very commendable."

In addition to debating in both the Tournament of Excellence and Championships, Reno High School alumnus McGuire was selected to be one of three members nationally to make up the all-stars U.S. debate team to compete against the Irish team in the annual "United States versus Ireland Debate." The debate is held each year at the beginning of the championship tournament, always around Saint Patrick's Day. 

The U.S. debaters are always undergraduates, usually seniors, chosen by the National Parliamentary Debate Association based on three criteria: sportsmanship and diplomacy, forensic and academic achievement, and effectiveness in public debate. McGuire will join a student selected from Western Washington University and Abilene Christian University.

"On top of everything Jonathan has worked hard for, he was also just named Fraternity Man of the Year by the University's Greek Life community," Sharp said.

McGuire is grand procurator of the newly charted Kappa Sigma Fraternity at the University. Brill, his teammate and girlfriend, also has a recognition beyond the debate team to celebrate. As executive vice president, Brill and her sisters of Sigma Kappa were recognized during the annual Greek Life Awards by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life as the University's Overall Chapter of the Year.

Sharing rank No. 18 in the country is University junior Cory Nims and junior Jakob Christensen. 

"The most important thing for us right now is to strategize about what we want to do so that we have a couple of really solid strategies going into the competition," Nims, a former Reno High School graduate, said.

The game 

Teams are made aware of a debate round's topic 20 minutes before it begins. They have prepared the last few weeks knowing a list of 18 possible topics.

"There are some that are just extremely hard, like providing disease monitoring in south Sudan," Brill said.

Parliamentary debate was based loosely on the British model of parliament, but has evolved to a more Americanized hybrid of extemporaneous speaking and debate. The Association privileges a breadth of knowledge about current events, domestic policy and foreign affairs; embraces a range of argumentative forms, including both technical and more traditional styles of argument; and, rewards impromptu delivery, or "thinking on your feet."

Parliamentary debate is generally a policy-oriented form of two-person debate. In each debate, a two-student team represents the government side (or the side affirming the resolution); a second two-student team represents the opposition side (or the side negating the resolution). Students are expected to present arguments supporting their side while refuting arguments of the other team.

"Students who practice debate are some of the higher achieving students at the University," Sharp said. "I have 24 students involved with debate this year, the most I've coached. Some are political science majors, criminal justice; one of our top debaters Jakob Christensen is an engineering major. I wish all students would have access to debate. "

The debate team has a rich tradition at the University, according to Sharp, with a long lineage of debaters who remain influential within Nevada and on a federal level. Sharp would like the debate program to continue to be one known for its success and caliber and hopes to strengthen recruiting opportunities through scholarships. 

"When we have debate team alumni events on campus, we show past participants the trophies we've collected," Sharp said. "They are really impressed and ask how many years' worth of competitions they represent. It's great to see their reaction when I tell them one year's worth."

For more information about the University's debate team, contact Sharp at or 360-747-2944.


For more news on the University of Nevada, Reno, follow @unevadareno on Twitter.

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