ERMA - Lower Cape May Regional (LCMR) High School’s Mock Trial Team brought home the state championship March 18, ending a 25-year drought.
According to team captain and high school senior Nikolas Frey, of Erma, the six-member team hopes the win “can reunite the school and community in spirit and passion,” after a year of Covid and its impacts on “businesses closing, people out of work, loss of income, people without food and many deaths."
“We can shine and get through this together, succeeding at LCMR,” Frey said. “We all can take pride in this great win and tip our hat to the school and community. There has been so much loss around the community with Covid this past year that we can all take great pride in proving good things come out of LCMR.”
Frey, along with classmates Holly Karavanas, Liv Longshore, Elise Hiem, John Payne and Anya Davis, defeated West Morris Mendham High School in the finals to win the state title.
They twice beat teams from Wildwood Catholic and Middle Township high schools and Cape May County Technical School to win the county title and won the southern regional title before competing for the state title. They lost to West Morris Mendham in the quarterfinals before winning the state title against them.
They will compete for the national title in May.
The competition consists of each team member being assigned a role in a made-up civil or criminal case, which is sponsored by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, which hopes to bring “law to life” for the students.
The teams are scored by professional lawyers and judges, who are grading how the student attorneys present the overview, evidence and provide the burden of proof, respond to objections and how they can think on their feet during the trial.
Student witnesses are judged on their ability to field questions, their knowledge of the facts and “ability to invent information when appropriate,” and how they display emotion and confidence, according to Frey.
During the competition, all teams are provided the same information and eventually argue the plaintiff’s and defendant's sides. Nearly 200 schools were competing statewide.
“These are the only kids in high school who compete and are judged by people in their field,” said long-time coach Barbara Bakely-Marino, a retired local attorney. “This is a high-level competition for the brain, for critical thinking. It takes a special student to want to do this because of the amount of time and dedication it requires.”
Marino first became involved with the program as a new attorney in the late 1980s, helping her alma mater. Over the years, she has been an assistant coach, judge and county coordinator, and this year, was the solo coach when the previous head coach retired and no one else agreed to help. She advised the students on their roles, how they fit into the case, and how to present their material.
“You don’t have to want to be a lawyer to participate,” she said, noting there are only four attorneys from the multiple teams she assisted over her tenure at LCMR. “You have to like to think and argue, not be afraid to speak up. The trend over the past eight to 10 years seems that student interest in the program is declining. I’m not sure why, but I hope by winning this state championship, we can reverse that trend.”
Because of the pandemic, students were unable to practice together in the same classroom, so they practiced every day via Zoom, according to Frey.
This year, the students were assigned a made-up civil case involving three plaintiffs, who sued a city after the police allegedly lacked probable cause to stop them following a protest to defund the police department. Other allegations centered around a possible cover-up, drunkenness by the police chief and other issues.
“They try to take current issues for us to present and argue,” Frey said. “There is no outcome of who wins. Instead, we have to paint a picture with our theories, decide what spin we want to put on it, and then be flexible enough during the questioning of witnesses, objections and our statements because there is no script to refer to.”
Students dress the part they play, competing for a minimum of one hour and 45 minutes, usually longer. For the state competition, they could be together at the high school but used Zoom and were required to be in separate rooms because of Covid concerns.
Besides overcoming the restrictions brought on by the pandemic, Frey overcame a personal challenge after his mother, who he described as a “Mock Trial mom,” died last April.
“My mom was our biggest supporter,” said Frey, who has been a team member all four years of high school. “She always wanted to see us win, and we did it for her. The first place I went after we won was to visit her at the cemetery. I know she was with us in spirit and was happy that we won.”
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