WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Did Charles Olney and Thad Blank finish their senior debate season at Whitman College as the best policy debate duo in the nation?

The answer, according to a new computerized ranking system, is that yes, Olney and Blank can lay claim to a season-ending No. 1 national ranking.

The new ranking system, devised by Jon Bruschke, director of the debate program at California State University-Fullerton, has Olney and Blank at No. 1. Two teams from Michigan State University are listed at No. 2 and No. 3, followed by teams from the University of California-Berkeley and Dartmouth College.

The Bruschke system considers a number of factors, including placings at major tournaments and victories over quality opponents. One flaw in the system, however, is that it doesn't include results from the season-ending National Debate Tournament (NDT) in early April. The judging format used at the NDT precludes its results from being incorporated in the Bruschke computer rankings.

Olney and Blank placed third at the NDT, losing in the semifinals to the eventual champion, a team from Northwestern University. A few weeks earlier, Olney and Blank placed second at the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) national championships, dropping a close decision to a New York University duo.

Of the top five teams in the final Bruschke rankings, No. 1 Whitman and No. 5 Dartmouth made the best showings in the two national championship tournaments. While Whitman placed second at the CEDA finals, Dartmouth finished third. The two teams reversed placings at the NDT competition.

During the course of the spring debate season, Olney and Blank faced their Dartmouth counterparts three times, winning twice. The Whitman duo also won the Dartmouth Round Robin invitational tournament.

According to Whitman debate coach Jim Hanson, it is doubtful that Whitman would have lost its No. 1 spot in the Bruschke ranking if the NDT results had been included. "Of the top teams, only Dartmouth did better than Charles and Thad at the NDT, and I don't think Dartmouth scored enough points in that tournament to move past us."

"The Bruschke ranking system has its limitations, but it's not the only indicator of Charles and Thad being worthy of a No. 1 ranking," Hanson added. "Of the other top teams, no one did better than Charles and Thad in terms of combined results at the last two championship tournaments."

While Olney and Blank placed third as a team at the NDT, Olney posted a "first" for the Whitman debate program by winning the individual speaker competition. Olney finished with 577 adjusted speaker points, edging Michigan State's Calum Matheson by one-half point. Judges give speaker points based on the quality, clarity and persuasiveness of arguments, evidence and strategies used by each debater. Blank finished seventh in the field of 160 competitors.

"That was a huge accomplishment for Charles," Hanson says. "It's something no one else at Whitman has ever done."

In recognition of Olney's victory in the individual speaker competition, Whitman takes year-long possession of an opulent traveling trophy that features a glass Tiffany bowl. Olney also received an expensive wrist watch as part of the Robert Feldhake Award, which has been given to the NDT's top speaker each year since 1957. Past winners of top speaker honors include James Q. Wilson, author and former political science faculty member at Harvard and UCLA; Lee Huebner, a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, France; and Robert Shrum, a political adviser and consultant whose past clients have included President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy.

In addition to winning the prestigious Dartmouth Round Robin, Olney and Blank enjoyed victories at tournaments hosted by California State University-Fullerton and Western Washington University. They also won their third consecutive Northwest CEDA Championship, finishing their collegiate career with a 46-round winning streak at tournaments in the states of Washington and Oregon.

"In terms of success at the national level, Thad and Charles are probably the best policy debaters we've ever had at Whitman," Hanson says. "That is saying a lot, considering the many great teams we've had in the past."