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Kingston's Murdock headed to nationals - twice

KINGSTON - Mitch Murdock has made an indelible impact as part of the Kingston High School debate team, and will take his skills to the national stage today as he competes in the American Legion High School Oratorical Contest in Indianapolis.

Murdock, a junior, is one of 53 students from across the United States and its territories competing in the national tournament, after winning the Washington state championship in late January. The format is a new one for Murdock, who specializes in foreign extemporaneous speaking, in which a contestant is given 30 minutes to prepare a memorized, seven-minute speech on a topic relating to an international political issue.

"The first time he did his 10 minute oration for me, he was doing all the classic things that novices do," said Kingston debate coach Deborah MacKinnon.

MacKinnon was surprised at the way Murdock, who went to nationals in foreign extemporaneous speaking last year, was struggling with the new format.

"I said, 'Mitch!'" said MacKinnon, in a scolding tone. "And he goes, 'Well it's a completely different venue.'"

Murdock was humbled at first, but began practicing relentlessly and honing his skills to come out on top in the state tournament. Though he says his schedule is always overflowing because of spending "way too much time" on researching and preparing for his speeches, Murdock sees a variety of good coming from his endeavors.

"The skills associated with debate transfer easily to other avenues of life, from being able to communicate to sticking to deadlines to the pressure (and thrill) of competition," he said.

Murdock fell in love with debate and public speaking when he saw the fun his older brother, Frank, a freshman at Western Kentucky University, was having on his own high school teams. When Murdock was in seventh grade, he lived with his family on Bainbridge Island, and his brother competed on the Bainbridge High team. The following year, the Murdocks moved to Colorado, and to a school that had no debate team.

"So Frank teamed up with another high school and did sort of well and then got pummeled at this debate tournament," said Murdock.

Frank asked the girl who beat him where she was from, and decided to commute to her school, in Delta, Colo., so he could learn to compete at a higher level.

"Delta was like 40 minutes away from our town, so Frank ended up commuting to Delta every week to practice with the Delta debate team," said Murdock. "And I thought that was pretty cool, so I just hitched on a ride when I was a freshman. So as a freshman I competed in Colorado, and then we moved back to Kingston, and Frank and I built this debate team at Kingston, and I've just been competing there."

MacKinnon saw something special in Murdock from the time he began attending Kingston High, last year.

"He was extremely strong from the start," she said. "He has a graduate school work ethic as a high schooler. He has this tremendous ability to focus."

The devotion Murdock shows has paid off -- last year, he placed in the top 60 out of more than 400 students at the National Forensic League's (NFL) National Speech Tournament.

"I was so happy when I qualified last year," said Murdock. "That was my goal this year."

Murdock has once again met that goal, as he will return to the NFL tournament in June. The Kingston debate team is currently raising funds to send him, and so far has received $200 from Greater Kingston Kiwanis, but will need about $1,100 more to hit their target.

"The national tournament is the pinnacle of the entire year," said Murdock. "It's what everyone works toward. There's a huge element of just knowing what's going on in the world, because they can ask you any question about current events. So to prepare for that, I guess I just read the newspaper."

Besides debate and speech, Murdock competes as part of the KHS track and cross country teams. And this year, he has unearthed a love for a new subject: biology.

"My whole world changed when I took biology," he said.

Murdock originally planned to study international relations in college, but after his interest in science began to blossom, he says he would like to combine his two favorite subjects and possibly study international health.

"There are so many opportunities you can pursue with that type of background," he said.

MacKinnon adds that a number of doors will open to Murdock and his fellow debaters just as a result of the skills they learn in their craft. And no matter how Murdock does in this weekend's national tournament and the June contest, his coach and teammates stand behind him.

"We think he's got a real shot at a national ranking," said MacKinnon. "The school is just really proud of our team, and we get a lot of support from the whole school community."

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