For the past 6 years, the Dodge City High School debate team has been on a roll.

As the team preps for its season opener in Great Bend, coach Steve Ray is optimistic.

"The tournament in Great Bend has been around for I think 76 years," he said. "Two of the last 4 years we have won the tournament. Prior to that, no Dodge City team ever won it."

With a total of 114 students in debate, 23 on the varsity team, the team keeps growing.

"I used to have just two sections of 30 kids," Ray said. "Now I have five sections with 114."

Ray attributes the rise in attendance to the family atmosphere Ray instills along with the students.

"The older kids help the younger ones in every way they can," he said. "For some kids, they don't have sports or music as a niche to get into to let their competitive juices flow.

"It gives them a situation to compete and it's fun. People want to be a part of that."

The varsity team this year features eight seniors, seven juniors and nine sophmores.

Senior Amber Nilhas got involved in debate to be involved in as many extra curricular activities as she could until she fell in love with debate.

"When it became more like a family it became my main focus," Nilhas said.

A 6-time medal winner, Nilhas plans to go to University of Kansas into the LEADS program for humanities and law where she hopes to get her degree in 6 years.

"I have family in Lawrence so that is where I have always wanted to go," she said. "I took a debate camp there 2 years ago that I learned a lot from which I was able to help the novices (first time debate team members) to help keep and maintain the strength of the team."

Senior Oyuki Camacho, a fourth year debate team member and third year varsity team member along with Nilhas, got involved in debate in the 8th grade when she says the vice principal of Comanche Middle School convinced her to join.

"So I joined and saw I how much I liked it and wanted to keep doing it," Camacho said. "I am a more versatile team member so my partners vary throughout the season. I want to finish this year strong and accomplished for the program and to work with the other novices.

"You have to shine for yourself but need to help one another."

Camacho plans on going into criminal science to be a criminologist after high school.

For Nilhas, she was named the Dominique Award winner for DCHS for mentoring.

Going into her final year she said, "I want to improve my record but still am learning. My novice year I struggled so I knew the more I can help them the stronger the whole team would become."

Camacho added, "We wouldn't have been able to learn what we did without the family orientation of the team."

Senior Viridiana Arias was talked into debate through family and friends and cousins who had been on the team.

"I am in the art club and GSA," she said. "I have been on for 4 years and 3 on varsity as well.

"State is my goal this year. I was qualified for state last year but didn't go but I want to be able to put myself out there and for the experience and everyone works really hard."

Arias wants to go into criminal justice and psychology after high school.

Some hardships for the team came last year when teammate and novice Freshman Malicki Fregon passed away.

"He was a novice but sill worked very hard and was a popular kid," Ray said. "You don't have many people on varsity want to work with a novice because they are so new but everyone wanted to work with Malicki.

"The team took the death really hard. He was a skilled debater and we miss him.

"He made every event fun and special."

One challenge that faces the team this year will be the absence of Ray for 4 weeks due to foot surgery.

"I have a skilled assistant that will work great," he said. "I may do some Skype work with the team to give them advice but I know the kids work really hard to make something that this school can be proud of.

"It is a respected program with all our success being student directed who take the time and effort.

"Usually coaches write up the cases they debate, I have my students do it and you would be amazed at how smart they are.

"That's what makes them so competitive, the 'I am smarter than you' mentality."

With debate however, budget from schools comes in to play when going to tournaments.

"We have sponsors that help," Ray said. "We do have a finite budget but Dodge City is proud of what we are doing.

"Sometimes it hinders taking as many kids as we like but the district does help us.

"In fact last year I went over budget and then this year they gave me more money but any kind of donation for these kids is appreciated.

"Anyone can call the school, ask for me and we can accept them that way.

"You know these kids wake up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday, get to the school at 5 a.m. to leave to be at a tournament at 7:30 a.m.

"They like the competition, it's in their blood. They talk about debate while going to the tournaments, during the tournaments and on the way back from tournaments.

"And when they come up with something unique, it's all theirs."

To make a donation to the debate team, call Ray at DCHS at 620-227-1611.

To contact the writer email vmarshall@dodgeglobe.com