Gustavo Garcia and Jessee Espinosa treated their trip to Daytona, Fla. like a research expedition.

The Merced College debate team had been humbled a bit at the 2018 California Community College Forensics Association State Championships as its style of parliamentary debate didn’t relate well with the Southern California judges.

The setback tapered their expectations as the pair made their first appearance at the prestigious Phi Rho Pi Nationals, the top community college competition in the nation. Despite not expecting a lengthy stay in Florida, Garcia and Espinosa were determined to make the most of every minute they were there.

“We really didn’t know what to expect going in,” Garcia said. “We weren’t expecting to go too far, especially since we’d be going up against the top teams in the country. We were just hoping to learn enough while we were there to come back next year and really compete.”

As Garcia and Espinosa have done throughout the school year, they proved themselves ahead of the curve. The pair not only made it through the preliminary rounds of the 10-day competition, but came home with hardware, earning Merced College a bronze plaque.

“The state tournament showed us that some of our arguments were a little too theoretical,” Garcia said. “Looking at the judge’s comments taught us that we needed to be more conversational. We went to nationals wanting to talk to as many teams and coaches as we could and just get as many tips and techniques as we could on how they go about putting their arguments together.

“Winning that award means a lot to us. We were talking on the plane flight over on how we just wanted to come back with something. Even if it was just a stuffed turtle from the gift shop, we wanted to bring back something for the people at the school that had invested so much time and money in us.”

While the bronze award is an amazing conclusion to an unbelievable first year of debate, it’s not necessarily a surprise to those on campus that have followed this team from the beginning. Overcoming hurdles has become the tandem’s forte, and they’ve consistently shown the ability to be at their best while under pressure.

Heck, the fact that a debate team even exists is a testament to their powers of persuasion.

Having dabbled in debate while in high school, Espinosa and Garcia took over the Debate Club when they stepped onto campus as freshmen in the fall. Not content to simply go through the motions of mock debates in a club setting, the pair put in the leg work to compete in statewide competitions.

They convinced Political Science and Business Law professor Elizabeth Patterson, a former nationally-ranked collegiate debater herself, to be their coach. Garcia and Espinosa then wowed the Merced College Foundation — the philanthropic arm of the College — swaying them to help fund their trips to the state and national competitions.

Espinosa and Garcia accomplished all that while still going to school full time and turning in daily practices to get better at their craft.

The results of that dedication speak for themselves. Merced College finished at least top three in five of the competitions it entered this year. The team is ranked 82nd in the nation according to the National Parliamentary Tournament of Excellence rankings and is No. 13 among two-year schools.

“I don’t know if it’s fully sunken in yet what we’ve accomplished,” Garcia said. “The whole year feels like a whirlwind. It’s crazy that just last semester we were trying to figure out all the paperwork and signatures it would take to make the debate team exist.

“Our performance in Florida definitely gives us a lot of confidence going into next year. We plan on using the summer to just keep networking with other teams and learning as much as we can. One of the best things about debate is how many different styles and approaches there are. We’re going to take everything we’ve learned and try to be that much better next year.”