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Orange County

Debate Team a Power in U.S.

Speech: Forensic team from Saddleback, Irvine colleges beats some of the nation's biggest schools. Next goal: the division title.

April 08, 2002|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The keys to success are the same in athletics and forensics--smart recruiting and good coaching. On the baseball diamond, football field or basketball court, community colleges are no match for such storied four-year institutions as Notre Dame and USC. But in forensics, it's quite a different story.

Coaches aren't looking for the biggest or strongest or the fastest. They want the brightest, most motivated and most effective communicators.

And if the final standings of the National Parliamentary Debate Assn. are any indication, the South Orange County Community College debate team is near the top of the heap.

The debate team, comprising students from Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges, finished fourth in the yearlong national competition, ahead of Notre Dame, Oregon and Florida. Only UC Berkeley, the Air Force Academy and Point Loma Nazarene University finished ahead of southern Orange County.

The debate team competes this week in Fort Worth, Tex., for the national community college title. But Coach Larry Radden is thinking about next year's squad.

"You have to be in a constant mode of recruiting," said Radden, who has taught forensics at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo for eight years. "And you have to somehow find the people with inherent ability from the school's regular classes that we're teaching. If you've got the ability and the tenaciousness to succeed, I can work with that."

For Radden and his other five coaches, the work seems to never end. Radden figures he spends at least 45 hours a week preparing students for their next competition through research and practice sessions. That doesn't include his full-time teaching schedule.

"Our coaches overextend themselves," said Erin Rice, who recently won a silver medal at the state community college championships. "I'm sure if they broke down their salary, they'd make about a dollar an hour."

Most top debaters have schedules that are just as grueling. Rice estimates she spends 20 to 25 hours a week on forensics. Each week, she meets for 30 minutes with each of her six coaches. In spring, when tournaments take place nearly every other week, her life is essentially consumed with the debate team. "It's not for everybody," the Irvine Valley College sophomore said. "If you aspire to be good, you can be good. With all the time we put in, it's almost like we're members of some athletic team."

On Wednesday afternoon, Rice prepared for the national tournament by giving a 10-minute analysis about the U.S. government's policy on controlling the AIDS epidemic. During her speech, Rice was often encouraged by Radden to "show more empathy" or to "watch what your hands are doing."

"They can be tough on you," Rice said. "I cry all the time. But they're just trying to get the most out of you."

Rice didn't see herself as a debater until she took a beginning speech class as a freshman. But it wasn't long before she realized she had found her passion.

"I'm totally outgoing," she said. "I never shut up. Forensics gave me a forum to express myself."

It also convinced her that she could become a pretty good attorney. So after one year on the debate team, Rice changed her major from liberal arts to pre-law. Gary Rybold, Irvine Valley's co-director of forensics, said it's no accident that many of his best orators are pre-law students.

"They are the most highly motivated people," he said. "They want to excel."

Rybold also finds that his best debaters are former high school student-body presidents, drama students or simply the loudmouth in the hall. Rybold also found Rebekah Baker in a beginning speech class. An experienced actor who has appeared in a children's movie and dozens of plays, Baker had no forensics training.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," said Baker, a sophomore who specializes in interpretation of literature. "It's tons of work. You have to sacrifice your job and your family."

Baker, who is interested in a career as a radio producer, said she had a difficult time adjusting to the strict rules of forensics competition. In the interpretive presentations, competitors must hold the book they are reading a certain way, their arm movement is limited and they can't stride around the room as they speak. And crying is not allowed.

"You can build up to a cry," Baker said. "But you can't show tears."

During parliamentary debate practice, there were no tears. But there were plenty of terse exchanges between members of the two-person teams arguing the pros and cons of universal health care in America. Rybold, whose specialty is parliamentary debate, knows health care could be one of the topics this week in Texas, and he wants his students prepared.

"We'll probably have researched about 80 current-event issues by the time competition begins," Rybold said. "And we'll have gone over 1,000 pieces of evidence."

Matt Taylor, the forensics coach at Cal State Long Beach, said the dedication of South Orange County's coaches has a lot to do with the team's success.

"It has a heck of a lot to do with the teachers at those institutions," said Taylor, whose team finished eighth in the national competition. "They make a huge investment in their kids and the programs. They make these kids feel like someone cares about them in ways that make them exceed their potential."

Of course, Taylor says, team titles and individual gold medals are only a few of the benefits that forensics competitors receive. The rest come later in life.

"These kids are exposed to so many different ideas and solutions," Taylor said. "It's easy to see problems, but very hard to solve them. In forensics, students see that it takes time and the patience to work through solutions. It's a great activity that teaches you so much, but also introduces you to a world of possibilities. Not only do they know the world can be better, they know they can have a role in making it better."

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