Niles West debaters resurgent
Members of the Niles West Debate Team (from left) Vinay Patel, Miranda Kang, Jonass Placitis, Theo Noparstak, Gershom Chan, Nick Charles, Rebecca Harbeck, Lizzie Prete, Walter Lindwall, Soretti Donka
Updated: February 19, 2013 12:10PM
SKOKIE — The debate team in high school has long been branded as not being a “cool” thing to do.
A group of students at Niles West High School, however, is defying that reputation by dominating the national high school debate scene.
This year’s debate team, coached by teacher Eric Oddo, gained national recognition for the first time since the club fizzled out in the mid-1990’s and re-launched three years ago. Varsity duo Theo Noparstak and Jonass Placitis won two regional bids, qualifying the team for the national Tournament of Champions competition later this year.
“Being such a new team, I don’t think any other schools in the country expected us to get this far,” Oddo said. “I cannot stress how impressive this is. It easily ranks up there with the most elite debate teams in the country.”
More than 10 years have passed since Niles West debaters earned their last national championship title. Back then, debate coach John Heintz led two teams to win the TOC and one team to win the national championship.
Yet, the debate team disappeared at the height of its success after Heintz left teaching to attend law school in the mid-1990’s.
He returned to Niles West Township District 219 as chief legal counsel and assistant superintendent of human resources three years ago, and upon his return he encouraged the Board of Education to support the reinstatement of the debate team.
The club has since been going strong, boasting its highest enrollment ever with 50 students.
Noparstak and Placitis, both seniors, earned their first bid to qualify for the National TOC at the Ohio Valley Tournament, a competition held Dec. 1-3 at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. They earned their second bid the following week at a competition in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Ohio Valley Tournament was a nail-biter for the 50 debate team students and large group of parents and teachers who went down to Kentucky to watch the competition.
Ten teams, made up of two students each, competed in the Varsity Policy Debate against a total of 71 teams across the country. Noparstak and Placitis went 5-1 in the preliminary rounds and were ranked seventh seed entering the elimination rounds. They advanced to the Double Octafinal round, where they won on a 2-1 decision, earning them their first TOC bid, but lost in the semifinals.
Four Niles West teams also competed in the Novice Policy Debate along with 31 other teams who entered the novice category in the Ohio Valley Tournament.
Freshmen Soretti Donka and Justina Jude won the team’s seventh novice championship title in three years last month.
Donka and Jude were the 10th seed entering the elimination rounds, but won on a 5-2 decision in the championship round.
While the football team runs drills on the field after school, the debaters can be found in a classroom putting their brains to work while dedicating up to two hours of their time after school every day to preparing for the series of debates that take place throughout the school year.
“I think if you become really good at something, then you’re respected, whether it’s sports or debate,” Oddo said. “These kids have their career and educational goals lined up at an early age, and I think they break down the nerdy stereotypes by proving that if you give enough effort you can achieve anything you want.”
The debates center around policy issues, and this year’s topic is “transportation infrastructure investment.”
“If you look at the people who did debate in high school — presidents, lawyers, high-profile public speakers — they’re some of the most successful people,” said Oddo, who himself was a member of the debate team at New Trier High School.
Placitis, who left the men’s volleyball team to join debate his sophomore year, said being part of the debate team has changed his college and career goals by making him want to go into political science instead of his initial plans to study law.
“I think it’s the best thing anyone can do in high school,” Placitis said. “I wish other kids would realize how great this program is because it really teaches you to learn how to think on your feet and it gives the kids who don’t get a chance to speak their minds a new opportunity to express themselves.”