WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Jim Hanson looks back on the past year as one of the most successful seasons in the history of his decade-long tenure as director of the Whitman speech and debate team.

"Every season has its highlights, but when you look at the number of trophies and awards we brought home this year, you could say this was our most successful season ever," Hanson said.

Whitman success was most pronounced in the area of policy debate, where juniors Thad Blank and Charles Olney led the Missionaries to domination of the Northwest debate circuit. Whitman "closed out" two regional tournaments, which means the policy debate competitions ended prior to the semifinals because elimination rounds had winnowed the field to Whitman teams only. "We closed out one of those tournaments with the top six teams," Hanson said.

Olney and Blank won tournaments hosted by Gonzaga University, Lewis & Clark College, and the University of Oregon. By the time they swept to victory at the Northwest CEDA Championships for a second consecutive season, they had compiled a staggering 39-1 record against competitors in the Northwest. Their lone loss came early in the season to a team they bounced back to defeat four or five times during the course of the season.

"Going 39-1 in college debate is almost unbelievable," Hanson said. "That is something that might happen once every 30 years."

In February, Blank and Olney placed second at the annual Northwestern University (Evanston, Ill.) tournament, which is considered the premier spring event prior to nationals and attracts 140 of the nation's top teams.

By the time the 56th annual National Debate Tournament was held in late March at Southwest Missouri State University, Blank and Olney had risen to a No. 5 national ranking -- the highest in school history. Competing in a select field of 76 teams, the Whitman duo eventually settled for a fifth-place finish, losing a 3-2 decision in the quarterfinals to a team from Michigan State University.

"I expected Charles and Thad to do well this season, but they exceeded my expectations," Hanson said. "It will be fun to watch them next year. Of the teams ranked in the top five, they are only team that doesn't lose at least one partner to graduation."

Olney and Blank also fared well at the National CEDA Championships in early April, placing third in a crowded field of nearly 200 teams. They lost 2-1 in the semifinals to the eventual champion, a team from Fort Hays State University.

Three other Whitman teams -- Emily Cordo/Beth Schueler, Brian Ward/David Guidry, and Mike Winnike/Emily Marr -- also did well at CEDA Nationals, advancing through the elimination rounds to finish in a tie for 33rd place. Of Whitman's top four policy debate teams, only one competitor (Emily Cordo) is graduating this spring.

"Our policy debate group will obviously be very strong next year," Hanson said. "There's a real chance we could be blowing other schools out of the water, at least here in the Northwest."

In parliamentary debate, seniors Natalie Havlina and Gabe McGuire opened the season by winning the University of Alaska's prestigious Great Alaska Speakout. By season's end, senior Nicholas Thomas and sophomore Chris Gorman had emerged as Whitman's top team. Thomas and Gorman placed 10th at the highly competitive National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence and 17th (among 291 teams) at the National Parliamentary Debate Association's national championships. Thomas placed 10th in the individual standings at the Tournament of Excellence.

Thomas also excelled in individual events, placing first in separate tournaments in Communication Analysis and Extemporaneous Speaking. His season included two second-place tournament showings in Impromptu Speaking.

Two first-year students, Zahava Wilstein and Bridget Kustin, won tournaments in After Dinner Speaking and Informative Speaking, respectively. Sophomore Darrell Miller was also a tournament winner in After Dinner Speaking.

Sophomore Sam Spiegel in Communication Analysis and first-year student Katie Imbeau in Drama Interpretation placed well throughout the season. In addition to winning one tournament, Imbeau placed second three times and third once. She also had a first-place showing in Prose at one tournament. Spiegel was the top winner at one tournament, in addition to placing second and third (twice) at other tournaments.

Spiegel and Imbeau competed as a team in the Duo category, placing second once and third twice in various tournaments.

Competing as a single unit within the Northwest Forensics Conference, Whitman's debaters and individual event competitors won this year's Sweepstakes Trophy for scoring the most points at three designated tournaments.

While all-around scoring at the national level is done informally, Hanson said, Whitman placed second this season to the University of California-Berkeley. It marks Berkeley's second consecutive year in the top spot. Whitman filled the No. 1 spot in each of the four seasons prior to that, Hanson said.

"Berkeley had the most points again this season, but at least we narrowed the gap a bit from a year ago," Hanson said. "We expect to have another very strong first-year class next fall. As a whole, our speech and debate team will be very young and very talented."