There's a well-worn cliche in sports fiction: an upstart team of scrappy players with big hearts wins the big game against a bigger, richer favorite. It's a story playing out for real with a group of Oak Park and River Forest High School kids, but their sport of choice isn't a sport at all.
Debating isn't even a school-sanctioned activity at OPRF, at least for now. But the kids involved are as serious and competitive as they come. Two freshmen, Jonathan Libgober and Misha Slavin, just won a novice-level tournament in Evanston, beating a team from Glenbrook South High School, a national powerhouse in debate.
"Winning was such a rush," says Jonathan.
"Your heart stops when you win," agrees Misha.
Consider the differences?#34;Glenbrook South's debate club has about 60 kids at all levels (novice, junior varsity and varsity), at least three adult coaches, an alumni assistance team and, since it's an official school activity, a heap of financial and faculty support. The OPRF kids?#34;about 16 are active now?#34;coach themselves, practice against each other, and (with help from parents) pay their own way.
Years ago, OPRF had its own top-ranked debate team. By the time Brian Libgober got to high school in 2002, it was long gone. He had cousins who were debaters, and after his freshman year, Brian decided to give debate camp a try. Debate camps, held on many university campuses in the summer, are essential for serious high school debaters, he says.
Although he had to catch up to kids with a lot more experience (he had none), Brian says he came back from camp "excited and enthusiastic"?#34;and determined to start a debate team here. Friends Dan Diamond, Carl Brozek, Tom Skelton and a few others signed on, and last year they mustered enough moxy to enter two local tournaments.
There are a lot of complex rules in debate. Each year a new topic is selected. Research done at the summer camps is shared among debaters, but the big, successful programs do their own research as well. For the style of debate the OPRF kids do, teams of two take either the affirmative or negative side of the topic (they have to be ready to do either) and argue in multiple rounds. Winners move beyond the five preliminary rounds to quarterfinals, semis and finals.
In their first try, two (unofficial) OPRF teams competed. One of them won one preliminary round.
"We were thrilled," recalls Diane Redleaf, Brian and Jonathan's mom and the most active parent supporter. The kids, after all, are self-taught.
"We were really, really bad," says a more critical Brian.
This year?#34;with more kids, more experience, and juniors Brian and Dan serving as coaches?#34;they're doing much better, by anyone's standards. Many of the new recruits, including Jonathan and Misha, are freshmen. They practice four days a week after school, and go to tournaments on weekends.
At their first tournament this year, team members took home seven trophies. At the Homewood-Flossmoor tournament in November, four of the eight teams that made it to the quarterfinals consisted of kids from OPRF. The team of Tom Skelton and Eliot Abrams made it to the finals. And then there was the big upset at Evanston.
But the kids agree that in order to really succeed in the debate world, the team will need to become a school-sanctioned club.
Making it official
It's been several years since any new clubs were added at OPRF, primarily because of funding restraints. This year, getting a new teachers' contract in place was another hold-up, since clubs are required to have paid faculty sponsors. The contract affects the amount of pay, or stipend, sponsors receive, which in turn affects the activities budget.
After the contract was approved in December, a stipend advisory committee was established, according to Cindy Milojevic, the new full-time activities director. The committee will review proposals for new clubs and make recommendations to the school board. The board will make all final decisions.
"Debate Club is one of numerous clubs that have submitted proposals. The proposals have been passed on to the committee," says Milojevic, who later added that the committee will look at the Debate Club proposal for the first time this week.
School sponsorship is crucial to the debaters because they can't get into a majority of area tournaments?#34;including the nation's largest, Glenbrooks, which is spread among Glenbrook South, Glenbrook North and New Trier?#34;without it. Debate is also governed by the Illinois High School Association, and only sponsored clubs can compete at the state championships (although this year, a few of the kids may piggyback onto the sanctioned speech team to go to state).
Team members are determined to move forward. Many plan to go to camp?#34;for three to nine weeks?#34;next summer. Brian has high hopes for the freshman who enter next year, since they'll have four full years to develop.
Debate teams can run up big expenses?#34;one reason a school might be reluctant to sponsor one?#34;but Brian says this club can be different. "We focus on teaching the kids; we do that better than pretty much any school in the region. We're inventing a new paradigm for how debate teams can be run without a lot of money."
"Our new model is very successful," Eliot chimes in. "This is a great educational activity. We learn how to argue, talk. We learn how to think."