KU students win top two debater awards at National Debate Tournament; one team advanced to Final Four

photo by: Scott Harris

University of Kansas junior Azja Butler, left, and senior Nate Martin, right, won the first and second speaker awards, respectively, at the National Debate Tournament.

The University of Kansas certainly had March tournament success on one front this spring.

Two KU students have been named the top debaters in the country based on their recent performance at the National Debate Tournament. And after advancing three teams to the elimination round of the tournament — only the second time KU has done so — the university had one team make it to the round of 16, one to the quarterfinals and one to the Final Four.

Azja Butler, a junior from Lansing, was named the top speaker at the tournament. Scott Harris, KU’s David B. Pittaway Director of Debate, said Butler was the first Black woman in the nation’s history and third student in KU’s history to win the award. KU students also won the first speaker award in 1955 and 2019.

Nate Martin, a senior from Lansing, won the second speaker award. Martin and Butler both attended Lansing High School. Graham Revare, a first-year student from Shawnee, was named the 12th-place speaker at the tournament.

Harris called the recognitions “very exciting” and “historic.” He said there were 78 teams comprising 156 competitors at the tournament.

“It is the best performance that we’ve had as a squad with this many teams at the national tournament,” he said on Monday. The National Debate Tournament began on March 26 and ran through Tuesday. It was hosted virtually by Harvard University.

The KU students won their speaker awards after competing in the first three days of opening events, but the competition continued Monday and Tuesday with a single-elimination tournament.

The team of Butler and Ross Fitzpatrick, a senior from Leawood, went 8-0 in the opening rounds and advanced to the elimination round as the top seed and only undefeated team in the tournament. This is the fourth time in KU’s history that a KU team has been named the top seed at the National Debate Tournament. Butler and Fitzpatrick ended up advancing all the way to the semifinals, where they lost in a 3-2 split decision against the University of Michigan.

The team of Mickey McMahon, a sophomore from Leawood, and Michael Scott, a sophomore from Glenview, Ill., went 7-1 and advanced as the fourth seed. They lost in the round of 16 in a 5-2 decision to a different University of Michigan team.

The team of Martin and Revare went 6-2 and advanced as the sixth seed. They advanced to the quarterfinals, where they lost in a 4-1 decision to Dartmouth College.

“I am very proud of the hard work of the debaters and coaches that went into this historic run,” Harris wrote in an email to the Journal-World on Tuesday. “The complexities of switching to a virtual debate required incredible sacrifices by the students and coaching staff to make the season work.”

Harris said KU’s debate team is historically one of the top five programs in the country, and that the program’s peer institutions included schools like Harvard University, Dartmouth College, Georgetown University, the University of Michigan, Northwestern University and Wake Forest University.

“A year ago, we were heart broken when the NDT was cancelled due to Covid-19. This year we were thrilled to have the opportunity to compete against so many brilliant students from around the country,” Harris wrote.


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