Springfield, Ohio — It wasn't exactly David vs. Goliath, if only because the underdog competed against more than just one opponent. Wittenberg's student-run, student-funded Mock Trial Association team exceeded all expectations again in 2009 with a strong run through a regional tournament in February and a national tournament in March, overcoming numerous obstacles to finish among the best in the nation.
The team regularly excels against much larger schools, managing to qualify for national competitions three times since the program was founded at Wittenberg in 2003. Even with its overachieving history, the team's 2009 results were impressive, including wins over the University of Cincinnati at the regional tournament (which went 7-1 in the competition) and the University of Delaware, one of the top teams in the nation in recent years, at the national tournament.
Perhaps what makes the team's accomplishments so impressive is that it does not have an official "coach" available on a regular basis. The Mock Trial Association was created with the help of Johnny Pryor, Wittenberg class of 1999, formerly an assistant prosecutor for Clark County, and Lowell Stockstill, professor of management, as its first faculty adviser. Since Pryor moved away in 2005, however, the team has continued to make strides, first with Miguel Martinez-Saenz, associate professor of philosophy, as faculty adviser for two years and now with Edward Hasecke, associate professor of political science, as its faculty adviser since 2006.
Each mock trial team prepares for tournament competition by practicing for a fictional legal situation. The case set before Wittenberg's team in the 2008-09 school year was a libel lawsuit against a major news media conglomerate for publishing a report that accused a gubernatorial candidate of murder on television.
With the assistance of retired public defender Bill Merrill, who provided advice and guidance in the workings of a courtroom, the eight team members dedicated "countless" hours to their craft during the 2008-09 school year. There was no one to push the students – their success was a product of diligence, ambition and initiative, just as their predecessors had exhibited in building the program in recent years.
"Our approach this year in particular has been to highlight the ability of our individual attorneys and witnesses to think on their feet, equipping them with the information and tools they need to do so reliably," said Cody Grindle, class of 2009 from Perry, Ohio. "We also approach our practices with a solid dose of humor, which serves to make even the most mundane run-through fun."
It was a recipe for success.
"Throughout the season I was continually surprised by the analytical edge that mock trial instills in students," said Greg Yeager, class of 2009 from Indiana, Pa. "Watching the election coverage, it was second nature to pick out the flaws in pundits' arguments, to recognize a subtle mistake in word choice by a candidate. Mock trial addresses every facet of public speaking-- persuasion, presence, voice and body language-- and helps a student develop these skills while thinking on their feet.
"For those planning to go on to law school, the experience is invaluable. But just about every profession demands, at some point, a strong command of language and the ability to speak persuasively. Whether making a business presentation, submitting a proposal, or simply trying to engage an audience, there really isn't any preparation comparable to competing in mock trial."
Not only did the team compete well against much larger schools, Wittenberg was the lone NCAA Division III school to claim individual awards during the national tournament. Grindle earned an intercollegiate best witness award for his portrayal of a forensic death investigator, while Yeager won the same award for his portrayal of the president of the news organization.
"Having been an attorney with Mock Trial for the past three years, I have developed a deep personal appreciation for the unique set of skills I have mastered and the effects of those skills outside the mock trial atmosphere," Grindle said. "From gathering the confidence to speak a foreign language in its native country to articulating careful answers during an interview, the weekly practicing of these skills armed me with the means to succeed. I expect these skills to develop further and flourish in the business world, where public speaking or just speaking in general is an essential part of successful communication.
"As far as legal education, the experience has equipped me with the ways and means to develop reasoned arguments and furthermore to explain them in a persuasive way before an audience."
Grindle and Yeager were two of the team's five seniors in 2008-09, joined by Ronnie Ross, class of 2009 from New Philadelphia, Ohio, Kraig Reiber, class of 2009 from Cincinnati, Ohio, and John Papic, class of 2009 from Grove City, Ohio. The other team members this year were Pat Deering, class of 2010 from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, Michelle Graham, class of 2011 from Springfield, Ohio, and Courtney Web, class of 2011 from Washington Court House, Ohio.
"The team really came together this year," Yeager said. "We had a core group of talented seniors who both made invaluable contributions to the case and provided strong leadership. The underclassmen have their work cut out for them next year, but I have no doubt that they are more than capable of stepping up. Everyone showed a tremendous amount of dedication this year, and we proved that we're capable of competing and excelling at the national level."
Written By: Ryan Maurer