WALLA WALLA -- Hours before the new year, on the last Friday of winter break, several students studied notes and leafed through documents in a chilly Green Park Elementary library.
While the heat kicked in, assorted treats of jelly beans and chocolates helped offer sustenance while the members of the Walla Walla High School debate team got to work.
The team, which this year includes several students from Lincoln Alternative High School, took time away from winter break to prepare for a big competition at Gonzaga University Jan. 7-8.
Just one year since a new debate team was established at Wa-Hi, its members have emerged as bright and serious competitors who are drawn to the sport of communication and articulation. The team now features several returning students who offer guidance and experience to new members.
Club President Machado Mijiga, a junior at Wa-Hi, explained how last year the team had about 10 core members, and this year has about 20 students who regularly attend meetings and compete. The figure includes students from Lincoln who have performed strong at recent competitions.
"Last year we were developing as a team, and learning what things were," Mijiga said.
Green Park teacher Jean Tobin helped establish the team last year, and has been its coach since the start. This year she is joined by Erica "Riki" Wauchek, who teaches English and drama at Lincoln Alternative High School and helps coach the Lincoln team.
The Wa-Hi and Lincoln debaters have taken first overall in their last two regional competitions, facing about 10 to 12 schools. The team also took seventh overall at a debate competition held at Whitman College Nov. 5 that drew 20 high schools.
The natural energy and enthusiasm the students bring to the team has helped Tobin set ambitious yet realistic goals for the year. Tobin said she would like to see more students qualify into top rounds, or finals. She also hopes to see more team awards, and to again send students to compete at the state level.
"And we'd really like to send someone to national. More than one (student)," Tobin said.
Hope Grant-Herriot has already set a personal goal of qualifying for a spot in national competition. Grant-Herriot is continuing a streak from last year of taking top places in her individual rounds. She took home first-place trophies for expository speaking and interpretive reading at a regional competition held at Chiawana High School on Dec. 11.
"I'd like to go to state," said Konor Clark, a sophomore new to the team this year who has taken top scores as a novice Lincoln-Douglas debater.
The team started preparing for the year's events in August -- even though debate topics weren't available until October. And the hard work is paying off.
The competitions require the students to research a wide field of topics relevant in either national or global affairs.
The students have researched and learned about jury nullification, the decriminalization of drugs, cyber-bullying and compulsory immunization, to name a few topics.
Seeing more than one side of a topic is part of the challenge but also a benefit of debating, and why students are often required to have an argument ready for either side.
"You're not ever going to argue your own side if you don't know what you're up against," student Rosa Tobin said.
On a more basic level, the competitions offered the teens a chance to be heard, and capture the attention of the judges and whoever else is present.
"It's great to know that people are going to listen to me," Grant-Herriot said.
"It feels like you have the power when you're in those rounds," said Marisol Beck, another returning debater.
On that cold Friday, coach Tobin directed the students to debate each other, go over speeches, or research topics and review notes. The team hopes to do well at the Spokane competition this weekend.
Grant-Herriot worked on Congress debate topics, a new event for the team this year. In it, students must have arguments prepared in favor or against real bills.
"It's basically like a real Congress round," Grant-Herriot said.
Mijiga and Clark are competing in Lincoln-Douglas, or more classical debating, and were researching whether children and teens who commit crimes should be tried as adults. Topics for Lincoln-Douglas debate change every two months.
"They have to uphold a value on each side," Tobin said.
But debating is not all high stakes and constant pressure.
During their practice, the students took a moment to recite a passage from the film "The Great Debaters," which Green Park Principal Mike Lambert recommended to Tobin, she said.
It has since lent the debaters a rallying cry during events.
"I asked for that for Christmas from Santa," Grant-Herriot said about the movie.
Beck said the debate team has become an extended family. It has also taught her things, like the definition of utilitarianism, which helped her in one of her classes.
"I think it's taught everyone a lot of life skills," Mijiga said. "Education is the main component to debate. It's the main thing people get from it. Debate isn't arguing."
For Tobin, seeing the growth of the original team, while also looking toward the future, gives her a positive outlook.
"The energy and excitement that they bring ... it's actually really emotional for me," Tobin said. "To see how successful they are ... you can't help but be optimistic about the future of this world, because they're so amazing."