By Peter Tormey
SPOKANE, Wash. – When excitement reaches a feverish pitch on the Gonzaga University campus again this spring as the men’s and women’s basketball teams compete for berths in their respective NCAA Tournaments, another Gonzaga team with a longer tradition of excellence will compete for a national crown in debate, the sport of the mind.
Gonzaga’s top debate team – ranked No. 4 nationwide after rising to No. 2 earlier this year – is comprised of seniors Leah Moczulski and Paul Kanellopoulos, who first squared off to debate as 13-year-olds in their native Houston.
Who won? Moczulski raises her right index finger, smiling. Kanellopoulos frowns.
These erstwhile rivals are loyal Zags who wear GU basketball jerseys during tournament elimination rounds.
Moczulski wears a Stephen Gray jersey; Kanellopoulos wears Elias Harris.
“We follow what the basketball teams are doing even if we’re not home,” Kanellopoulos said. There are many similarities between collegiate debate and basketball. Both have national rankings, share similar seeding brackets and their national tournaments are in March.
Though debate draws little media attention, these academic aces never complain – they look forward to March all year.
“It has been fun that our March Madness runs the same as theirs,” Moczulski said. “We’re at the tournament as they are competing in their tournament. There are a lot of fun parallels.”
Gonzaga’s tradition of debate excellence dates back at least 100 years, includes one national championship, and enjoys strong faculty support.
“I’ve never had a professor who was not willing to work with me or with my schedule,” Kanellopoulos said, alluding to another thing debaters and student-athletes share: road contests.
Head debate Coach Glen Frappier says Kanellopoulos and Moczulski represent Gonzaga’s best chance for a national championship in a long time; he would know. Frappier was part of Southern Illinois University’s 1996 national championship debate team. Steven Pointer and Sam Allen are his assistant coaches.
With the travel, their ‘other’ schoolwork, and the near-constant need to research, debate requires time-management skills. Many factors contribute to Gonzaga’s rich debate tradition.
“I think it’s the people,” Kanellopoulos said. “I find a lot of enjoyment from being in a group of a lot of different students working for the same goal and achieving success together. I find it very valuable because of the teamwork.”
Moczulski says relationships keep her coming back.
“People keep us involved,” she said, adding the competition makes her a better student. “It’s been really helpful for classes and for research, to learn how to write papers, to get involved in class and participate, and to hone our public speaking skills. I think it has a social aspect and an academic aspect to it.”
Both appreciate Gonzaga’s commitment to debate, which combines Jesuit pedagogical emphases on critical thinking, eloquence in writing and speech, and research to ascertain the truth.
Just as great competitors like alumni Ronny Turiaf and Courtney Vandersloot have helped transform Gonzaga basketball, Moczulski and Kanellopoulos are doing the same for debate.
“Anytime you have a team that reaches this pinnacle of success for almost any team in the country, it becomes kind of a program-changer,” Frappier said. “We’ve been successful for a long time, but I don’t think Gonzaga has ever had a team this good. This is probably the most talented team in my memory of Gonzaga debate.”
When March Madness begins this spring, Kanellopoulos and Moczulski will be rooting for the Zags as they work like Bulldogs to realize their own Final Four dreams in the sport of the mind.
View Coach Frappier’s comments regarding the impact of Kanellopoulos and Moczulski.