There's no debate about this Wheeling dynasty

Nate Ruben is always looking for a good argument.

Free trade? He can argue both sides.

Should high schools serve breakfast? Ruben will pace the room, spin on his heels and spout off reasons pro and con.

“My mom wanted me to stop yelling and learn how to argue constructively,” said Ruben, who is not only a top debater at Wheeling High School but also has a public speaking hero in Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco.

Wheeling Principal Laz Lopez calls Ruben and his fellow debaters a dynasty. They won the state title for the fifth year in a row at the Illinois Congressional Association State Debate Championship in April. Over the past 15 years, Wheeling has taken the state crown 10 times. No other school claimed more than a single title over that time.

They're pretty good, and they know it.

“We're not arrogant, we put in the work,” Coach Michael Hurley said. “This isn't speech team, this is about the clash of ideas.”

Hurley and his team smile when they mention the “traveling” state trophy which the winning school gets to keep for one year.

“We bring the trophy to the state championship to show everyone that yes, it does exist, and then hopefully we bring it back home,” Hurley said.

“Not hopefully — we do,” said Emma Jensen, a junior on the school's junior varsity debate team.

Like at most high schools, Wheeling's debaters first try out for the team freshman year. No one debates in junior high, so everyone was on the same level — beginner.

“Everyone starts debate at the same time,” said Jenny Garbarz, a junior. “I just thought it sounded interesting.”

Debate season runs from September through April, during which Wheeling's team prepared for more than 10 tournaments.

Before a tournament Garbarz and her teammates spend hours researching and practicing public speaking drills run by Hurley and two assistant coaches, Mike Burke and Wendy Relich. Sometimes three people speak at once to try and confuse a debater. They try “no um” speechs or “mush mouth” speechs where someone tries to talk with a mouth full of hard candies.

Everyone needs to work on something.

Samantha Zuba, a senior, tends to talk too long while Ruben doesn't talk long enough. Tom Schwerin, another senior, stands in one place too much.

“I'm not a real flashy speaker,” Ruben admits. “There are some guys who sound great even though they don't say anything. That's not me.”

Their heroes are great Wheeling debaters who have gone before them: Alex Seher, a 2009 graduate who is a sophomore at George Washington University studying international affairs; Zach Donisch, a 2008 graduate who is a junior at DePauw University studying Russian and creative writing; and Sanjit Shah, a 2009 graduate who is a sophomore at Northwestern University studying medicine.

“A lot of our (debate) graduates go on to be lawyers, or in public relations,” Hurley said. “One is a sports reporter for ESPN.”

At the state tournament in April, the team debated for eight hours over two days, tackling issues such as the protests in Bahrain, the United States use of private military companies and pensions for public unions.

The competition pitted about 175 debaters and 16 other teams, including some from other Northwest Suburban High School District 214 schools, Stevenson, Highland Park, New Trier, Deerfield and Naperville high schools.

To celebrate their state win, Wheeling's debaters will get an honorary breakfast and parade around the school Monday.

Though the school's hallways this week were covered in “Vote for Haley” posters, referring to 2009 graduate Haley Reinhart's ongoing run on ‘American Idol,' Ruben said a lot of students know how good the debate team is.

“If we lost they wouldn't know who we are,” he said. “Plus everyone in the school got free doughnuts after we won state. A lot of people came up to me and said ‘Thanks for the doughnut.'”

George LeClaire/gleclaire@dailyherald.comWheeling High School senior Samantha Zuba answers a question from fellow debater Tom Schwermin as the school’s debate team practiced after school Wednesday. Wheeling Principal Laz Lopez calls the team “a dynasty” after its fifth consecutive state title this year.
George LeClaire/gleclaire@dailyherald.comWheeling High School junior Emma Jensen, a member of the school’s junior varsity debate team, speaks during a team meeting after school Wednesday.
George LeClaire/gleclaire@dailyherald.comWheeling High School’s debate team has won the state championship five years in a row and has claimed the state trophy 10 of the last 15 years.
George LeClaire/gleclaire@dailyherald.comA poster on the wall in the room where the Wheeling High School debate team practices after school. The team has won state five years in a row and maintained possession of the state trophy 10 of the last 15 years.