Hard work lifts Free State debate team to state’s top rating

Free State High School junior Max Lillich and Li Gordon-Washington are currently the top-rated debate team in class 6A. The are part of a Free State varsity debate squad of seven teams that also holds the state's top ranking.

Neither Li Gordon-Washington nor Max Lillich plan to be teachers or school administrators; nevertheless, the two Free State High School juniors have dedicated long hours this semester to reading academic works on education.

Their choice of reading material was determined in January 2016 when representatives of the National Federation of State High School Associations voted to make education reform the topic for high school debates for the 2017-2018 school year. That decision ensured that Li and Max, with their shared passion for debate, would become experts of sorts on education reform.

“I quit soccer to focus on debate,” Max said. “I did that last year. It was a hard decision. As much as I liked soccer, I like debate a lot more.”

The two have mastered the topic of education reform well enough to be the current top-rated 6A debate team in the state. Li and Max are part of Free State’s debate success under first-year coach Kelly Michael Thompson. The school’s seven-team varsity debate squad also currently holds the top ranking in 6A.

Li and Max first met as preschoolers and have been members of the Free State debate team since their freshman year.

“We both debated with other people last year and the year before, but we decided being together was the best choice for both of us,” Li said.

It has worked because they are both equally dedicated, they said.

“We both have committed a lot more time this year,” Li said. “It takes a lot of time. You have to read a lot of articles and books, and you have to dedicate a lot of time to practice.”

Thompson said Li and Max have excelled because they have put in the work.

“They work incredibly hard,” he said. “More often than not immediately after Li arrives at school, she is in the debate room giving me speeches, talking about arguments or doing research. Likewise, Max often has himself in a book or a file, working to prepare for the next team or the next tournament. It does not hurt that they are also both intelligent and talented individuals. That magnifies the mileage they get out of their hard work, I think.”

In earning their current rating, Li and Max have won 71 percent of their 44 head-to-head competitions. They have made the finals in two tournaments and won one.

Tournaments require seven or eight head-to-head competitions, Li said. Each competition requires each of the two debaters to make speeches in favor of a position, defend that position when questioned by opponents, make rebuttals of opponents’ positions and question their opponents’ presentations.

“It’s mentally exhausting for sure,” Li said. “I eat healthy things like apples and get a lot of sleep to stay sharp.”

Max takes a different approach.

“Energy drinks, and that’s no joke,” he said.

Although happy with their success, Li and Max acknowledge the state’s rating is skewed. Many of the state’s best teams have competed in national tournaments rather than those in Kansas that count toward the state rankings, they said.

Most of those top teams are from Johnson County, Li said.

“They have more money, so they have more coaches and the most talented coaches,” she said.

They credit much of their and the Free State debate team’s success this year to Thompson. A former Emporia State University debate team member, Thompson coached for five years at Hutchinson High School and three years at Blue Valley North High School.

Thompson said the improved overall quality and depth of the Free State debate team benefited Li and Max.

“Debating the other varsity teams on our squad and getting better from and with each other in research, practice and discussion has been valuable,” he said.

As they look ahead to the state debate tournament in January, Li and Max know they won’t face the state’s top two-speaker debate team. That team, ranked seventh nationally, is from Blue Valley Southwest, a 5A school, they said. Other hard-core competition will be waiting at state, and Max points to Shawnee Mission Northwest as a serious threat.

“But we can take them,” he said.