By Kim Ukura
Heading to the national tournament this weekend, the UMM Mock Trial team will be facing competition from Yale, Cornell, Harvard, and Georgetown - teams that are better funded, have more experience, and are consistently recognized at a national level.
However, this isn't really anything new for a team that takes pride in their status as underdogs.
"The level of competition is going to be high," said team captain and Morris native Jeremy Jost.
"But we're used to seeing some really top teams," teammate Jonathon Bringewatt added.
This weekend, Jost, Bringewatt, and the rest of the seven-member team, which includes Morris natives Adam Kopel and Mark Meyer, along with students Chris Omlid, Jonathon Bringewatt, Eva Wood, and Collin Tierney, will compete at the Gold Nationals Tournament at Hamline University in St. Paul.
By winning their ballots at the Upper Midwest Durst Memorial Regional Competition 7-0-1, the team heads to nationals as the top-seeded team from the Midwest.
UMM Mock Trial last attended the Gold National Tournament in 1997 and took 10th place.
During the regional competition two team members - Omlid and Kopel - were awarded Outstanding Witness, and Wood was named Top Attorney.
Each year the American Mock Trial Association creates a case that teams use for the entire year. The Morris team has been prepping since the beginning of September.
The case this year is The State of Midlands vs. Bobbi Campbell, the sentencing phase for a woman convicted of second-degree assault for stabbing a child protective services worker in the arm with a needle infected with the HIV virus.
During the early part of the season the team receives the case and prepares the different pieces of their strategy. They need to develop the case theory, choose witnesses and attorneys, write direct and cross-examinations, and develop opening and closing statements that accurately express each theory of the case, Jost said.
Team member Colin Tierney explained that the case theory is a "catchy theme" that sums up the team's interpretation of the case.
"It's the way to make it all fit together," concurred Jonathon Bringewatt.
A mock trial tournament is structured as a power-matched, round robin tournament. Each team competed in four rounds, and after each round teams are matched against teams with similar records for each successive trial.
Unlike a regular trial, teams are not judged on whether they have presented enough evidence to "win" the case. Instead, each team member's performance - as either a witness or attorney - is scored on a scale of 1 to 10. Individual scores are added together to create a ballot, which is how the winner of each round is decided.
"A perfect score is 140," Chris Omlid explained, "but a good round is normally something like 110-108."
To win the tournament, "We developed some curve balls," Omlid said. "We're not a well-established program, and don't have a lawyer coach, so we use strategies to throw off some of the best teams," he said.
One strategy the team mentioned was choosing unexpected witnesses. "Witness selection," Jost explained, "is done before each round. There are 10 witnesses to choose from and each side ends up with three witnesses."
The team chooses to call witnesses normally used for the opposing side to help throw off the strategies of the other team.
"Although we sometimes lose a little in that, the other team loses more, so it's a positive net gain for us," Omlid said.
The strategy has worked well this season, especially since the case is not a traditional civil or criminal trial.
There are typically some changes to the case after the regional winners have been determined. This year, the AMTA added two new witnesses to the case and changed a few of the other witness statements, Jost explained.
"We've been working pretty hard lately," he added.
In addition to their berth at the national tournament this year, the team is optimistic about the future of the program. "Most of the team is coming back next year," said Wood, "so this year will be helpful to get practice and experience against top teams."