The Toll Gate High School Mock Trial team spent the past weekend in Indianapolis, Ind., to compete at nationals, and discovered they were up against stiff competition.
“It is a whole different world out there,” said Sharon Franco, a social studies teacher at Toll Gate who has coached the team for 11 years. Although the team took last place, Franco says her team did their best against schools that had the added support of their state bar associations, drama coaches and lawyers, something Franco says Rhode Island teams are lacking.
“They have a lot of backing; we don’t have that,” said Franco.
Franco says Rhode Island’s mock trial season started late because there was the coordinator position at the Rhode Island Legal Partnership, who sponsors mock trial, until November. Because of that, the Rhode Island Mock Trail State Championships were not held until April 11.
Franco explained that this was a disadvantage to her team because the case for nationals was released on April 1 and her team could not begin practicing until well after teams from other states.
“A lot of teams had their competitions end in March,” explained Matt Deneff, senior and co-captain of the Toll Gate team. That means other teams had more time to practice the case with help from lawyers and drama coaches. The Toll Gate team must rely on themselves and Franco, which Deneff says works at the state-level but proved to be a disadvantage on the national stage.
Teams are scored by a panel of lawyers based on both their knowledge of the case and their presentation. Because other teams had more time and professionals helping them prepare, the Toll Gate team had an uphill battle.
Franco has taken a team to nationals before and she says the story is always the same.
“Every time we’ve gone, this has been the typical experience,” said Franco.
She added that not only was her team 11 days behind due to their season, but they also needed to find the time to raise the money to travel to nationals because they do not receive funding.
Franco says the team was able to raise $2,500 on their own, and this year the school department was able to provide the remaining funds. The total cost was about $6,000.
“[Mock Trial] needs to be funded at the state level,” said Franco, who believes the Rhode Island Department of Education and Commissioner Deborah Gist should do their part to support this academic program.
Deneff, who served as a witness for the national case, says having support from the state could only help.
“I feel like having more state support would make Rhode Island more of a contender at the national level,” said Deneff, adding that having the state championships at the same time as other states and not having to worry about fundraising would allow any Rhode Island team the proper time to focus on learning the case.
In addition, while talking with coaches from Midwestern states at nationals, Franco and her team learned that some schools met beforehand to practice the case.
“Midwest teams formed a league and were scrimmaging the case weeks before Rhode Island even had a state championship,” said co-captain Dena Goldblatt.
Franco also found out from other coaches that many state school districts provide mock trial workshops or classes, especially in the Midwest.
Despite his team’s struggle, Deneff says the Toll Gate team making it to nationals as an undefeated team means something. “It showed us what we could do, that our team got to that level and competed,” he said.
Goldblatt, who is also a senior, agreed, saying this experience was once in a lifetime.
“It was incredible; nothing that I could have imagined,” said Goldblatt, who was an attorney in the competition. She says getting to go up against teams of that level and see what top performing teams do will only benefit underclassmen competing again next year.
Goldblatt said the Toll Gate team competed in four trials over the weekend against teams from Delaware, Hawaii, Missouri and Wisconsin. She added that getting to meet students from around the country was a great experience that she would not have otherwise had.
“The team from Wisconsin was fun,” said Goldblatt. “After the trial was over, they came over and we all had a really great conversation.”
Goldblatt is considering a pre-law major when she goes to college next year because of her experience. She says this trip has prepared her for taking part in college-level mock trial.
“It’s a level up,” said Goldblatt of the competition at nationals. “I think going to nationals prepared me more [for the college competition]. I know what to expect.”
Deneff doesn’t see a legal career in his future but says participation in high school mock trial has helped him greatly.
“I’m definitely a lot more comfortable public speaking. [Performing in mock trials] helped me with my confidence,” he said.
Despite her team’s uphill battle, Franco is incredibly proud of her students.
“They did the best they could under the circumstances; I am so proud that we won state championships,” said Franco.
As for next year, Goldblatt believes the close-knit Toll Gate team has a good chance to repeat as state champions and head to nationals again.
“I think if they keep [working well together], they will keep up what we did this year,” she said.