Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

If you want to talk politics with some of the best student debaters in the west, look no farther than Columbia College.

The school's five-person Speech and Debate Club won two championship titles Nov. 2 through 4 at the Paul Winters Invitational Speech and Debate Tournament, hosted by University of the Pacific in Stockton.

The tournament, which included two-year and four-year schools, gave Columbia College students the opportunity to prove their mettle against some of the nation's toughest college debate teams. About 40 schools participated, most of them from western states.

Two Columbia College students went undefeated in a nine-round debate about sustainable urban planning, and a trio of students won a title by trouncing San Joaquin Delta Community College in a round of debates on the United Nations.

"We were really shocked," said Joseph Rodgers, 20, a Columbia College student and president of the debate team.

From the two victories in parliamentary debate, the team took home an impressive haul of four gold medals. While it received medals at a state competition last March, this tournament was the first time it advanced further than the semi-finals in a single division.

Columbia also got second place among small schools in an overall count of points from different competition types.

Columbia student Grant Wright was named the top speaker in a division for students with less than a year of debate experience. Fellow student Cody Green won seventh place in the same division.

The team had to overcome a small obstacle on its path to success: The speech and communications class that formerly trained debaters was cancelled this semester due to low enrollment.

Team members formed a club and came together for class sessions anyway. They also held practice debates twice a week for about 90 minutes each.

At the tournament, they were given topics and standpoints to argue just 20 minutes before each round of debates. They did advance research on a broad range of topics they thought would come up, mainly on current issues in the news, Rodgers said.

But they went to Stockton with no idea exactly what subjects they'd be conversing about.

The debate about sustainability centered on California Senate Bill 375, which went into effect in 2009 and requires urban planning that reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

Rodgers and fellow Columbia College student Daniel Beluardo concluded a nine-round debate by convincing a panel of judges that the bill should be implemented nationwide.

Students Grant Wright, Pablo Lopez and Cody Green persuaded another panel of judges that the United Nations should use military force to remove Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power.

Rodgers has found that being on a debate team has a range of benefits.

"It's gathering as much info as possible in a limited amount of time," he said. "It helps with research skills and being able to communicate your ideas. You work on a team, so it improves interpersonal dynamics."

Team coach Tim Elizondo said this year's team is remarkable for its "cohesion."

"They work very well together, which is unusual when you get a bunch of argumentative debaters together," Elizondo said. "That's what I found really remarkable watching them."

Since the team's class was cancelled, it got its funding for the trip from the Associated Students of Columbia College and had the fees for entering the tournament waived.

Rodgers said he doesn't think the team can afford to attend more competitions this semester, but the students are hoping to attend the California Community College Forensics Association's state tournament again this year.

They're also hoping more students will join the speech and communications class that was cancelled so it can be held again, Rodgers said.