Saturday, May 13 dawned cold and gloomy in Hartford, CT, the site of the 2017 National High School Mock Trial Championship. Yet the impending storm did not faze our North Carolina champs, the Central Carolina Homeschoolers (“CCH”), or the other 45 teams competing for the title of National Champion.
Nearly 1,000 students, coaches, and supporters had traveled to Hartford from as far away as South Korea, Guam, and Hawaii. While some schools were attending nationals for the first time, others – including CCH, making their fifth consecutive appearance – had experienced the stress and excitement before. Whether novices or “old hands,” though, the students were eager to get underway.
At last the festivities began. On Thursday evening, teams mingled at the Opening Ceremony, held at the Hartford “Yard Goats” minor league baseball stadium. Trading memorabilia from their state, territory, or nation, students enjoyed ball park food and made new friends while also sizing up the competition.
On Friday morning, everyone got down to business as they argued for the State or the defense in the trial of State of Connecticut vs. Wilbur Merritt IV. In this fictional case, the State alleged that a high school student, spurned by a classmate, brutally murdered the victim at a party on Halloween night of 2014. The defense argued that the crime was actually committed by a jealous ex-boyfriend. In arguing the case, the students dealt with issues of underage drinking, use of illicit substances, and peer pressure. The case materials were sobering, but the students were up to the challenge.
On Friday, May 12, North Carolina represented the defense in both rounds, facing strong teams from Virginia and Colorado. Our witnesses and attorneys put on a convincing case to raise reasonable doubt in the jury’s minds. On Saturday, our team switched gears as they argued twice for the State against skilled opponents from Minnesota and Arizona. Always professional, calm, and prepared, our team held their own against defense counsel, leaving little doubt that Merritt was guilty.
But had they done enough to advance to the final round? Eagerly we gathered in the lobby of the Hartford Convention Center, awaiting announcement of the two advancing teams. Finally the tournament host arrived, and the first finalist was revealed: Michigan (a team we had scrimmaged only days before). Waiting with bated breath, we soon erupted into shouts of joy as North Carolina was proclaimed as the second finalist! In fact, our team had won, not only all four rounds, but all 12 ballots – the only team in Hartford to do so. During the coin toss to determine sides, we learned we would represent the defendant. Piling into shuttles and cars, we traveled to the historic state Supreme Court, where the case would be argued before a panel of seven distinguished attorneys.
The championship round was intense. Both teams were polished and well prepared, adroitly arguing objections while skillfully applying case law and the Rules of Evidence. Witnesses for both teams were believable and engaging, and the attorneys delivered examinations, openings, and closings worthy of an actual murder case. When the gavel banged at the conclusion of the trial, both teams received a well-deserved standing ovation from supporters and observers alike. Soon, we all headed back to the Convention Center to await the final results.
The Awards Ceremony began with several speeches from the hosts and event sponsors. Next, the host announced the top ten Outstanding Witnesses and Outstanding Attorneys. We were thrilled when one of our own – David Bainbridge – was announced as the 4th Place Outstanding Attorney! On to the team placements. Everyone held their breath as the tenth through third place teams took the stage for photos and congratulations. When Michigan was announced as the runner-up, we could hardly contain ourselves! For the first time in our program’s history, a North Carolina team was National Champion! The Central Carolina Homeschoolers proved that they are not only the best team in our state, but the best team in the entire nation.
In reflecting on their season and the factors behind their success, attorney coach Darren Allen notes, “We’ve never had a team this cohesive. Whenever we’d finish practice, we couldn’t get them to leave the courtroom. When they’d finally get to the parking lot, we couldn’t get them into their cars. And when we’d go out to eat dinner, we’d still be lingering while the restaurant staff swept the floors and turned off the lights. These kids are inseparable.”
Student Madysen Bailey agrees. “Having never competed at Nationals, it was an honor to represent North Carolina. While the trial rounds were exciting, I’ll always remember the time spent laughing, debriefing and enjoying life together as a team.”
Mr. Allen adds, “One of the key components to success in mock trial is composure. When things don’t go well, how do you respond? When someone treats you with contempt, what is your reaction? That’s perhaps the defining characteristic of this team. They didn’t react negatively to unexpected rulings, difficult witnesses, or aggressive questioning. Whenever other teams would act rudely, they didn’t respond in kind. They never let the pressures of competition change who they are as people.”
CCCE President Gordon Widenhouse concurs. “It was beyond exciting to watch the team win the championship in our program’s twenty-fifth year. While everyone was impressed by the courtroom efforts of our students, I was especially pleased by and proud of the professional and gracious way they conducted themselves.”
Team captain Caitlyn Kelly sums up the year: “Nationals was an exhilarating experience….Words cannot express my appreciation for my teammates and coaches. Of course, they are talented public speakers, actors, and persuaders. Far more importantly, they are people of strong character, with diligence, humility, and a love for others. They worked hard this year, and they are much more than teammates. They are some of my closest friends.”
The CCCE extends hearty congratulations to the Central Carolina Homeschoolers and to the parents and friends who supported them along the way. We are so proud of all of you! Well done.