|Pat Borchers (left) and Skutt coach Mary Meyer (right) celebrate with their team upon learning of their final standing.|
Patrick Borchers, vice-president of Academic Affairs at Creighton University and former dean of the Creighton Law School, started the program along with his wife, attorney Judy Borchers, when their son Ryan attended Skutt in 2003.
Borchers describes that first team as "cobbled together" and fielding only six students, but the team won districts and placed fourth at state. Skutt has consistently been to the state championships every year since.
In 2007, Skutt went to its first national tournament and for the past four years has represented Nebraska at nationals. They didn't just show up. The previous four times that Skutt has been to nationals, they've won three of their four trials, just missing out on a top ten placement with each showing. They've never finished lower than 14th place.
Borchers said, "This year we kind of kicked the door open, and really had a chance at the national championship." Even though Skutt didn't take home the national title, they won all four of their rounds and along with the national champion team of New Mexico were the only undefeated teams at nationals.
More important to Borchers than titles is the effect that he's seen the mock trial program have on the participating students. One particular example from the first year's team involved a student with a difficult home situation.
The student wound up at Creighton, graduated with honors and went on to find a great job, Borchers said. "I'd trade in every trophy we've won for one more thing like that." Borchers said there have been a half dozen students involved with the program whose lives have definitely been changed by their experience with mock trial.
Surprisingly, Borchers said that he believes only one student has gone on to law school, but, "It's not intended to push kids towards law school. It's a fun activity. It's challenging. It's one of the relatively few competitive things in high school where mental agility counts for more than physical agility."
Take for example Skutt's Brianna Desa who was nominated by the presiding judges as one of the 10 Best Attorneys at this year's nationals. She has plans to become an orthopedic surgeon according to Borchers, and he believes she'll achieve that goal.
Desa became involved with mock trial because of a positive experience her older sister had with the program. She also thought it would be a good way to get involved and meet people during her freshman year. She said that mock trial has helped her to not get flustered in pressure situations while public speaking.
"You learn to compose yourself because you can't freak out about it. I think it's helped me with thinking on my feet and just critical thinking in general," Desa said.
Faculty coach Mary Meyer said that Desa is considered a leader on the team.
Meyer has been the faculty coach for the team since its inception in 2003. Meyer teaches government and politics at Skutt. She said that the team felt confident that they would do well when they left for nationals and worked as hard as they ever have in the five weeks leading up to the national tournament.
Meyer said mock trial "permeates into everything that the kids do in all of their other classes. She said that mock trial has helped the participating students even as they go on to the collegiate level of education.
U.S. District Judge Lyle E. Strom has generally judged the championship round in Nebraska since the mid '90s. Nebraska, represented by Ogallala High School, won the very first national championship held in 1984, although only a few states were represented.
He said what distinguished Skutt was, "they had poise and they understood the problems." He said, "They've also got some wonderful coaches."
Strom said that he's just happy to be involved with the mock trial program. "It builds confidence and it helps these young people develop the ability to think on their feet."
The National Mock Trial competition regularly fields teams from over 40 states and territories – an English-language school from South Korea even regularly attends – and this year saw a record 48 teams enter the national competition.
Borchers can attest to the skill required of the students in mock trial.
"It's very much like what lawyers actually do. Frankly, these kids are doing stuff that I didn't learn in law school. I was out of law school before I really was taught as a young lawyer how to conduct a good cross-examination," he said.
Because of the way that the national tournament is structured Skutt had no idea what their placement would be leading up to the awards ceremony. The teams aren't told how they did as they progress through the tournament. All they knew was that they hadn't placed first or second, because the top teams compete in a championship round.
Although the teams are paired against each other randomly in the first round, teams that win their rounds are matched against other winning teams, leading to progressively more difficult opponents.
Skutt beat the fourth and fifth place teams, which speaks to their level of competitiveness. Leading up to the championship round, Nebraska, New Mexico and California were tied with four wins and no losses. The tiebreaker to see which teams progressed to the championship round was decided based on ballots received during their trials.
Borchers described the tension leading up to the placement announcements. The top 10 teams, the trophy winners, were counted down. "They got up to fourth place. We've been disappointed before, missing the top 10 by a whisker.
And then they called, 'And third place is Nebraska.'" Borchers said the Skutt team broke into pandemonium with students running into the arms of their parents.
Borchers said, "We wouldn't have felt any different if we'd have won the National Championship."
Skutt's team included Brianna Desa, Nathan Jensen, Marie Wagner, Brittany Margritz, Taylor Gibson, Rachel Zweiner, Grace Smith and Nick Wagner.
Fortunately for Skutt, or unfortunately for Skutt's competitors at the state and national level, none of this year's team members were seniors, meaning that they'll likely be participating in mock trial next year, and have a good chance at making a run for the title again.