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A once-empty trophy display case outside of South Lakes High School’s library now houses a montage of awards won this year by the school’s newest powerhouse: the debate team.

“We started off literally with four people. We didn’t even have a name. Since then South Lakes has become a force to be reckoned with,” said South Lakes senior Jeffrey DiSanto-Ranney, 18, a captain for the debate team. “The trophy case was empty. Now it’s filled with debate trophies.”

This past weekend, South Lakes took first in the Virginia High School League’s state debate championship held at Liberty University in Lynchburg. The win marks the first academic state championship in the school’s 35-year history.

The win also marked a first for VHSL-debate tournaments. South Lakes students earned the same score during the tournament as Fairfax County’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

“They couldn’t break the tie,” DiSanto-Ranney said. “This is the first time in VHSL history that we’ve had an unbreakable tie.”

How did this oddity occur?

The VHSL debate championship slotted students in four debate categories: policy, Lincoln-Douglas, student congress and public forum.

Working in teams of two, Thomas Jefferson sophomore Lucas Lin, 16, and junior Richard Wang, 17, earned a first place against fellow TJ students junior Yana Kaplun, 16, and Nicolas Kim, 18, in the policy debate finals.

South Lakes students DiSanto-Ranney and fellow senior Kshitij Kumar, 18, also captured first and second state ranks respectively after squaring off against each other during the state finals.

Those results left the two teams dead-even at competition’s end, requiring a student from each school to engage in “rock-paper-scissors” battle for the one trophy available at the time. South Lakes lost the battle of palms, but VHSL officials will send a trophy to the Reston school.

VHSL is an alliance of Virginia public high schools, which aims to promote education, leadership and sportsmanship by maintaining competitive standards and fairness in school activities and tournaments.

This year there are 313 membership schools. Of those high schools, 123 participated in debate competitions. This includes 838 male and 898 female debate students.

VHSL Director of Student Activities Lisa Giles said the level of participation in debate tournaments has stayed competitive in recent years.

South Lakes and Thomas Jefferson compete in the AAA bracket for larger schools.

“AAA is definitely the most competitive [bracket],” Giles said. “AAA encompasses Northern Virginia, [the Richmond area] and the Virginia Beach-area.”

Northern Virginia schools have typically performed very well at the state championship for debate. Last year, Lack Braddock won the sweepstakes (this year the school placed fifth, tying with George C. Marshall High School). Freedom High School in Loudoun placed third, and Chantilly High School took fourth.

Students from these districts also tend to seek out additional competitive opportunities afforded in metro-areas, Giles said. This is true of South Lakes, which had several students named national qualifiers in the Washington Arlington Catholic Forensic Leagues’ tournament and will send junior Grace Erard, 17, to the National Forensic League tournament in Alabama in June for a Lincoln-Douglas debate competition.

Going into their same-side showdown last weekend, Kumar was ranked first seat and DiSanto-Ranney ranked third based on previously earned points during earlier rounds of competition. South Lakes, and TJ as well, had the option of not debating its students for first and second rankings.

“There’s a lot of competition between them, but they are very congenial about it,” said South Lakes debate coach and German teacher Cheryl Finley. Finley had decided against a Kumar/DiSanto-Ranney square off during regionals in April. However, the students said they wanted to debate at states.

“We didn’t think it was going to happen again,” Kumar said.

How did DiSanto-Ranney win?

“He made the right arguments. The judges liked him,” Kumar said.

South Lakes debate team captain and senior Reuben Levy-Myers, 17, said sometimes a victory in debate can be based on judges’ preferences rather than what’s happening between rivals.

“Judging is often really subjective,” he said, adding that strong performances can be undone by personal bias. “We debated global warming in October and we lost to a team who argued that global warming wasn’t an issue. There was probably some bias there.”

Erard agreed, saying, “A lot of times you can win the debate but lose the round... You can be convinced you won the round but due to judges’ personal preferences you can lose.”

In debate, a round is a competition between two competitors, which can be individuals or teams, which decides who advances to the next level of competition.

“You start with let’s say 200 people, then you have six rounds that eliminate some,” Levy-Myers said, adding that Thomas Jefferson High School has historically fielded a strong, large debate team, while South Lakes program has just recently grown.

“This year has been a year of rapid growth and success for us,” said Erard.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com