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Moorpark Debaters in a War of Words

Times Staff Writer

Maybe a Ph.D in international relations or a fan of Alvin and the Chipmunks could have made sense of it, but Jim Wyman is neither.

Merely the debate coach at Moorpark College, he sat in the middle of his kitchen and watched as two of his team’s most promising members strayed from the topic of U.S. policy in Africa--all 54 countries of it--and toppled headlong into gibberish.

“Stop,” Wyman roared from the television tray on which he’d been tracing the fast-paced practice debate in spidery script. “I’m lost!”

Moments of confusion are rare for one of the nation’s most together debate teams, but in its attempt to prepare for the state championships that begin Saturday at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Moorpark College was in rare form.

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Edge of Chaos

For the past few weeks, its members have pushed themselves to the edge of chaos in late night and early morning sessions in Wyman’s kitchen.

Competitors in other speech events have camped out in the living room of co-director Dick Strong, where practices have been running as late as 2 a.m.

Other members of the college’s forensics team, who spin verbal webs before judges in timed competitions, have been strutting their stuff in front of the beginning speech classes of the department’s third faculty member, Charlene Arnold.

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“It’s good to work bone-tired,” Strong said. “That’s the way state and nationals are going to be.”

Not that the state championship is all that important to Moorpark’s coaches. They intend to take the team to next month’s national contest, which will pit Moorpark against about 75 other two-year colleges from throughout the United States, regardless of their showing at the state level.

After all, at the nationals, the team will defend its 1988 championship--an honor that Moorpark has won more over the past 15 years than any other two-year college.

The school that wins this weekend’s California Community College Forensic Assn. championships, considered the most competitive state contest in the country, is the one that the others will be gunning for at the April 2 National Speech Championships in Concord, Calif., Wyman said.

But the fact remains that it’s been four years since Moorpark swept the state competition, whose point system usually ends up favoring larger programs.

‘Nice to Win’

“It would be nice to win state,” Wyman said.

It also seems likely. The school has won all seven of the tournaments that it has entered since September. The coaches can’t remember when they’ve had a better year, and both coaches and students are a competitive bunch.

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These are the sort of people who, when asked how many tournaments they’ve entered, reply, “Let me count my trophies,” as Moorpark debater Kari Ann Patterson did this week.

The school’s ace in the hole is K. C. Fowler, a 28-year-old sophomore in his second year on the team. Last year he won three gold medals and a silver in nationals and four gold medals in state. In the team’s most recent competition, he was named outstanding second-year student in Southern California.

“He’s the best I’ve ever taught,” Wyman said.

Coaching Experience

More mature than most of his competitors, (or most people half again his age), Fowler, a father of four who holds down a full-time job negotiating with insurance companies for a hospital, came to the team with experience not only in debating on the high school level but also in coaching there.

“It’s going to be hard to compete against Moorpark,” said Norm Fricker, debate coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, which has won the last three state championships.

Competing against Moorpark has never been easy. When Strong, a former high school and university debate coach, joined the college’s faculty in 1970, he entered its forensics team in its first intercollegiate competition. Moorpark placed second in the nation. The following year, Moorpark took first, a position it would capture four more times and once share with another school.

Part of the team’s success can be explained by geography. With no four-year state university in the county to draw students away from two-year colleges, Ventura County’s Community College District gets more the usual share of the best and the brightest, school officials say.

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And because Moorpark offers the district’s only forensics program, those inclined to run off at the mouth usually enroll there.

‘Attract Students’

“We attract students with our reputation in forensics,” said Larry Lloyd, the college’s vice president for administrative services. “It’s akin to what happens with athletics.”

Coaches are also drawn by Moorpark’s reputation. Soon after Strong came to Moorpark, he recruited Wyman, a recent law school graduate who had debated under him at the University of Redlands. They, in turn, signed up Arnold, who had wandered into one of Strong’s beginning speech classes at 34 years of age.

Under Wyman, Arnold won three silver medals. “It changed my whole life,” she said. Arnold, who holds an advanced degree in speech and communication, joined the faculty in 1986.

The result is a formidable dynasty. The coaches say they share a commitment to excellence--"Defy mediocrity,” reads a magnet on Wyman’s refrigerator--and agree on how to achieve it.

While competitors at such colleges as Orange Coast emphasize formal practice session after formal practice session, Moorpark’s coaches believe that can hamper spontaneity. “People get tired and burned out,” Wyman said.

Kitchen Sessions

Instead, they put stock in less frequent but more intimate sessions such as the one in Wyman’s kitchen.

In a field where few coaches specialize, Moorpark’s coaches divide the work according to their strengths. Strong focuses on such dramatic events as reciting poetry or prose or performing reader’s theater, in which a cast of six students reads portions of a play.

Arnold, who once supported herself writing brochures--"I kept thinking what good speeches they’d make"--focuses on such events as the 10-minute persuasive speech that requires students to craft prepared statements.

Meanwhile, Wyman, who figured that he’d practice law after he got tired of teaching but hasn’t yet, focuses on the events that require a highly developed sense of logic. They include debate, a verbal joust that can last between 1 and 1 1/2 hours, and short extemporaneous speeches, in which participants are judged on how well they think on their feet.

‘Teaches Structure’

Other debate coaches are like laborers, said Orange Coast debater Rene Morales, who has studied under Wyman in a summer workshop. They only know “how to put a building together through hard work,” she said. “Jim is like an architect. He teaches you the structure.”

Craig Grossman, the debate coach at Orange County’s Irvine Valley College who recently completed a survey of debate programs at 30 two-year colleges nationwide, says: “He’s probably the finest community college debate coach in the nation.”

For all that the team has going for it, rival coaches are reluctant to admit any jealousy.

“They’re nice competitors, so that kind of takes the sting out of any envy,” said M’liss Hindman, forensics director at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Tex. and president of the national junior college forensics fraternity, Phi Rho Phi.

Fowler lingers after competitions to play complicated word games with his competitors. And he gave one of his first-place trophies to Morales when she lost a three-way tie for second place in a recent tournament.

Coordinate Tournaments

Moorpark’s coaches are as generous with their time, according to their colleagues, who point to the frequency with which they agree to coordinate tournaments, which is the pastime’s equivalent to doing the dishes.

“It’s so much work you can’t imagine,” Bob Borneman, Saddleback College’s debate coach, said of the national championships that Wyman is coordinating for the third year in a row.

But Moorpark aims ammunition at its foes, not hearts and roses.

Fowler claims to have amassed about 20,000 “pieces of evidence"--usually snippets from magazine or newspaper articles--that he and Patterson use to support arguments courtroom-style.

For her part, Patterson has dyed her blonde hair a credible shade of auburn and began wearing glasses after a judge complained that she comes off as “an airhead.”

Foes Tactics

Members of the team make no bones about their surreptitious efforts to discover the tactics that their competitors will use.

Opponents aren’t the only ones who have been kept guessing by collegiate debaters.

College administrators have canceled entire forensics programs after happening in on a debate in progress and finding the proceedings unintelligible, Wyman said.

Given to a whole vocabulary of specialized words and abbreviations--in Wyman’s mouth, Gorbachev becomes “Gorbie"--debaters also speak very quickly. Collegiate competitors have been clocked at 477 words a minute, according to Wyman.

“The guy in the Federal Express commercial probably does only 340 or 350,” he said.


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