Husker Debate team earns national honors

Photo Credit: Debate group members with trophies
Tue, 03/28/2023 - 12:46

Photo above: Debate team members with trophies. Top row: Omaima Lado, Zach Thornhill, Zach Wallenburg, Justin Kirk, Grant McKeever. Bottom row: Elena Belashchenko, Zein Saleh, Luke McDermott, Nevin Butler, Nicholas Wallenburg, Ayyah Saleh, Salman Djingueinabaye. Photo courtesy Justin Kirk.

Last weekend, the Cornhusker Speech and Debate team competed in the fifth annual National Forensic Association Lincoln-Douglas (LD) Grand Prix in Denton, Texas. This event is the final regular season tournament of the year and frequently features the nation’s best and most competitive programs.

This year, the tournament launched a College LD Coaches Association, a volunteer pool of active College LD coaches, as well as an All-American award and a Coach of the Year award. The group will annually recognize up to 10 students who competed throughout the regular season with the All-American award.

Debate team

Zein Saleh and Nicholas Wallenburg. Photo courtesy Justin Kirk. Click/tap to enlarge.

Two Huskers were named All-Americans. Zein Saleh, first year debater and political science major from Lincoln, NE, earned 10th place by a vote of the coaches’ association, and Nicholas Wallenburg, fourth year debater and graduate student in accounting from Lenexa, KS, was recognized as the top debater of the year and the #1 All-American in college debate.

“Nicholas represents the heart and soul of Husker Debate,” Justin Kirk, head debate coach and assistant professor of practice in the Department of Communication Studies, said. “His work ethic, commitment to the development of the team, community engagement, and excellence in academics are all evidence that Nick represents the absolute best in college debate. It is clear that the impact he has made on this community will last for years to come”

Wallenburg, who finished in the Elite Eight at the previous two national championships, coaches the Lincoln North Star debate team, where he has coached the last two Nebraska state LD debate champions in high school, and will attend Vanderbilt Law School in the Fall. He was also third place speaker and tournament champion.

Debate team

The team in Louise Pound Hall, preparing for the tournament. Photo courtesy Justin Kirk. Click/tap to enlarge.

Omaima Lado, political science major (pre-law) from Omaha, NE, was a semifinalist in Junior Varsity. Nevin Butler, double major in history and mathematics from Millard, NE, earned Top Speaker and quarterfinalist in Junior Varsity. Elena Belashchenko, a computer science major from Lincoln, NE, earned third place Junior Varsity speaker and octafinalist in Junior Varsity.  The team finished third overall in tournament sweepstakes, which recognizes teams with the best comprehensive record across all divisions.

Kirk was awarded the LD coaches’ association coach of the year award, which recognizes extraordinary accomplishments by coaches, such as exemplary competitive outcomes and strong team building practices.

“Justin has shown me the importance of building a positive team culture through his consistent efforts to build a team that can be seen as a family," Zach Thornhill ('20), graduate teaching assistant and assistant debate coach, wrote in his nomination letter for Kirk. "He extends this warmth to the rest of the NFA community where he works tirelessly to improve and revolutionize our activity.”

In his five years as coach of the debate program, Kirk has placed the team in the top 4 of college debate teams every year at the national tournament, winning the team national championship in debate in 2022.

“I am truly honored to have received this award from the community,” he said. “Debate coaches cannot compete, win, or find success without their team, and I hope to build a program that makes the state of Nebraska, the university, and the debate community proud.”

The Husker team won the 2022 national debate team championship at the National Forensic Association National Tournament and will travel to Peoria, IL in April to defend their title.