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Sitka High DDF sweeps state tourney

Ben Gordon and George Jones celebrate their win in Pantomime.


The Sitka High Drama, Debate, and Forensics team was successful at the state tournament in Anchorage over the weekend. Though “success,” in this case, sounds like an understatement.

Sitka won the 3A team titles in each of the three categories of the competition – drama, debate, and forensics — won the overall team title, won nine individual championships, and outscored even the closest large 4A school by over twenty points.

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First is full disclosure: A little over 18 years ago I contributed some DNA to this story. More on that in a moment. I also contributed some marital vows.

“I’ve been coaching twenty-five years now. We’ve had other victories, but never this decisively.”

That is Stacey Woolsey, one of Sitka’s three DDF coaches, and the architect — along with Randy Hughey — of Sitka’s debate strategy. Stefanie Ask handles the drama side of things.

“They worked so hard. It was great to watch.”

I have no relationship with Stefanie Ask, except I have had pizza with her cats.

Since this was my last opportunity to see one of my own kids in a state DDF meet, I accompanied the team to Anchorage, strictly as a spectator. I was not expecting any major story, and not really prepared to do any reporting. We’re used to hearing about Sitka’s success in DDF, and reading about the team in the Sentinel. They’re sort of like the Yankees – always in the race, often get the pennant, win the series once in a while.

This year was different. Something peaked for Sitka. In performances, especially, Stefanie Ask was seeing students move beyond just really good acting.

This happened with Emma Wilbur, a senior who took second in DI, or dramatic interpretation.

“So often, when you do something funny, you’re feeding off of laughter and applause and that kind of feedback from a room. You don’t get that with dramatic interpretation. But if you’re really pushing it emotionally, you start to feel the tension in the room rise, and I think you can feed off of that.”

The same was true of another Emma – Emma Bruhl – a sophomore competing in her first state meet, who took first in solo acting, and scored first on every ballot in every round.

Sitka’s lighter performances also took top slots: Emily Pratt with a humorous riff on the “Twilight” series; sophomore Chaya Pike took third in HI. Sophomores Ryan Apathy and Ben Gordon won with a duo interpretation of the “Calvin and Hobbes” series. Seniors Sam Woolsey and Alaire Hughey took second in duo with a darkly comic piece called “Mr. Marmalade.” Ben Gordon and George Jones took first place in mime. Ryan Apathy and Emma Bruhl took fourth. Chaya Pike and freshman Celia Lubin took fourth in duet acting.

So that’s Drama. Forensics is the art of speaking persuasively. Sitka has one competitor who so totally dominates this category, it almost takes the fun out of it for other schools. Senior Zephyr Feryok.

“Well, Zephyr is a force unto himself,” says Stacey Woolsey, laughing. “He earned more points at the state meet than seventeen schools. He took first or second in every event that he entered – Oration, Domestic Extemp, Debate – he even won Congressional Congress, which is kind of an out-event for fun. He is unstoppable. The kid is amazing.”

It should come as no surprise that Feryok and his partner, sophomore Chaya Pike, were also co-champions in debate.

But this is where the story becomes a little strange, and that DNA of mine that I was telling you about comes into play. Feryok and Pike broke into the semi-finals with my own kid, Sam, and his partner, Evan Harrington – both seniors. A third Sitka team, sophomores Ben Gordon and Ryan Apathy, also made the semis. So, after three days of debate among teams from twenty-three schools in Alaska, the tournament boiled down to four teams: three from Sitka, and the fourth from Whitestone, also known as “two-time-defending-state-champion Whitestone.”

Incredibly, this was exactly the same scenario – and the same cast — as last year, with one exception: Last year, Whitestone faced Sitka’s freshmen in the semis, and Sitka’s more experienced teams had to debate each other to get tot he final. This time, though, the semi-final bracket pitted Sam and Evan against Whitestone, and Zephyr and Chaya against teammates Ben and Ryan.

Sitka debaters "huddle" to strategize.

The Sitka coaches called a huddle – literally, the team circled ‘round like the Steelers – to strategize. Ultimately, they decided that Sitka’s star sophomores would forfeit the semi-final, which meant that Whitestone would have to debate their way through both Sam and Evan, and Zephyr and Chaya, to claim the title.

It never came to that, however. Sam and Evan, in their matching Blues Brothers suits, wild red hair, their briefcases, and their all-important blue Gatorade, atoned for the tough loss in 2011. Debate, in many ways, is like wrestling – everyone at this level knows the moves. It’s really about who can execute them. Sam and Evan somehow put Whitestone’s intellectual shoulders to the mat in one of the tensest semi-final debates in recent memory.

Sam Woolsey and Evan Harrington (and blue Gatorade).


Naturally, I remember nothing. I’m not used to this. I was hyperventilating into a paper bag. Mom says the guys were worthy of the state title they had just won.

“Those boys are such pure, logical debaters. There’s nothing you can throw at them that they can’t respond to. We walked out and the boys said, That wasn’t our best debate. They’re quarter-final debate was actually a lot stronger for them. And I said, Yeah, but I don’t think it needed to be, you’re that good. They had all three decisions from all three judges, and they were placed first- or second-speaker by every judge.”

And in one final coup, the Top Speaker points of the tournament went to Ben Gordon, the sophomore who took the forfeit so Sitka would be in the best position to take the title. When Ben Gordon and Ryan Apathy get to the semis next year as juniors, they will have already been there twice – and I’ll pass their parents the paper bag.

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