The race to become the nation’s top debater in the Lincoln-vs.-Douglas style came down to the wire for Millard North High School student Priya Kukreja.

By the slimmest margin, Kukreja came in runner-up at the 2016 National Speech and Debate Tournament in Salt Lake City.

Her performance helped propel Millard North to a No. 8 national ranking and to recognition from the National Speech and Debate Association as a “School of Outstanding Distinction.”

Nearly 260 students from across the country competed last week in the one-on-one format, patterned after the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Debaters must come prepared to argue either side of a prickly issue drawn from current events.

The topic this time: “Immigration ought to be recognized as a human right.”

An entire debate takes about 45 minutes and consists of constructive speeches, rebuttals and cross-examination.

Kukreja plowed through 15 rounds of competition before landing in the finals against Bennett Eckert of Greenhill School in Addison, Texas.

On an 8-7 decision, judges awarded the title to Eckert.

“It was a really cool feeling just to know I had made it this far,” Kukreja said, “and although it stings a little bit that I didn’t win, there’s honestly no disappointment.”

Aarron Schurevich, 29, Millard North’s head debate coach and an English teacher, said Kukreja is a “very intuitive human being.”

She is the kind of person people want to listen to, he said. She has the ability to create arguments, a skill not everyone has, he said.

The “outstanding distinction” award is given for having combined speech and debate scores in the top 10, he said. This is the first time that a Nebraska school has won it, Schurevich said.

The Millard North program is riding a wave of success because of good coaching, community support and selfless, dedicated kids, he said.

“There’s some sort of weird, special thing happening that the kids keep feeding off.”

He said the No. 8 national ranking is based on the program’s size and strength.

Millard North’s success, he said, lies partly in the fact that the school is pushed by other high-quality Nebraska programs.

Lincoln East came away from the national tournament recognized as a “Speech School of Excellence.”

Millard West was a “Speech School of Honor.”

Kukreja is ranked No. 1 in her class and will be a senior in the fall. She is co-editor in chief of the school newspaper and is interested in attending college at Stanford, or possibly Columbia or Penn.

She said successful debating comes from hard work, late nights, dedication, reading and learning.

“You have to be very committed to the activity to succeed in it,” she said. “I do think there’s a little bit of talent that’s involved, that you have to have some sort of ability to speak well. But it’s nothing that can’t be practiced or learned as you go through high school.”

She said she joined debate because it seemed “cool.” Her debating ability grew the more she did it, she said.

“I don’t think I was especially talkative before or I bloomed at any point,” Kukreja said. “I think it’s just as debate came on, I came more out of my shell. I became more confident. I became more educated on political topics, and I was more comfortable speaking on the things I knew about.”

Her mother is Priti Agrawal, and her father is Prakash Kukreja.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, joe.dejka@owh.com

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