How Can California Dominate at Nationals? A Master Class with Thom Scher | Golden State Mock Trial
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How Can California Dominate at Nationals? A Master Class with Thom Scher

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Thom Scher is the head coach of Menlo Mock Trial.



 

California has a Nationals problem.

 

Over 400 teams compete in California mock trial. We are in a renaissance of sorts when it comes to mock trial in the Golden State—there are more tournaments, more scrimmage opportunities, and more out-of-state competitions than ever before. California teams and students reign supreme at Empire, Providence, and Gladiator. But Nationals? No.

The last national champion to come from California was Tamalpais in 2005. It has only happened twice, with the other coming in 1994. So let me start with a basic question: if California really does have the best mock trial teams (something I steadfastly believe), then why does it not translate well into the Nationals tournament?

To answer that question, you have to consider who does well at Nationals. Five years of national top tens means 50 teams, right? Sort of. –Thom Scher

To answer that question, you have to consider who does well at Nationals. Five years of national top tens means 50 teams, right? Sort of. Consider Washington, which has had four of those top tens, all from the same school: Seattle Prep. North Carolina has three—all from Central Carolina Homeschoolers. All in all, seven states make up nearly 50% of Nationals top 10 (23 out of 50) over the last five years: New Mexico, Washington, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and North Carolina. It gets worse for California. Those 23 top tens boil down to only 12 schools. The top performing teams at Nationals come from the same schools, repeatedly. They do not make it every year, but the majority of years they do make it and the majority of years they do well.

California? We like to change state champions about as frequently as people change their calendars: annually. In recent history, the only school to buck that trend was La Reina—and in their third back-to-back-to-back win they got their first national top 10 (second). Coincidence? I’d argue not. I’ve watched the video of their final round appearance in 2013 and I’ve watched it after watching DVDs of their state performances. First of all, most of their competitors had done Nationals multiple times before. Even more noticeable, the amazing La Reina we all came to know from California competitions was not the same La Reina you see in that video: the presentation style was different, more reserved.

California? We like to change state champions about as frequently as people change their calendars: annually. –Thom Scher

At the 2016 National Championships in Idaho—which I had the pleasure of attending as a spectator—I saw a Dos Pueblos team deliver some of the most beautiful opening statements and closing arguments I’ve ever seen in high school mock trial. I also saw noticeable differences between Dos Pueblos and other top teams. Dos Pueblos had bigger witnesses, less of a focus on evidentiary objections, and more of a general charisma about them.

Here’s the problem: the California State tournament is set up to reward things that Nationals does not reward. –Thom Scher

Here’s the problem: the California State tournament is set up to reward things that Nationals does not reward. California examinations are two to three minutes tops, while Nationals examinations are seven to 10 minutes. California rules of evidence are highly abbreviated, while Nationals objections are based on the Federal Rules of Evidence. California is strictly criminal, while Nationals cases are frequently civil. California teams have about 100 days to prepare their cases before the State Championship, while Nationals is approximately 40 days that comes after an already bloodbath Hunger Games of a season. California uses demonstrative versions of exhibits, while Nationals uses a larger quantity of loose-leaf exhibits such as lab reports and photos. California is a bench trial, while Nationals is a jury trial. California’s timing forces abuse of creation of a material fact and non-responsive objections, while Nationals rewards impeachment and witness control techniques. The variations here go on and on and on and on.

Now why does California do so well at Empire, where the system is closer to the Nationals one? The preparation is longer, and much of the Empire concept comes from AMTA, the college mock trial world. There is a heightened value placed on performance, style, and big witnesses that I have just not seen at the Nationals tournament. When I took Menlo to Nationals in 2014 we studied years and years of film, and we dramatically changed our style because of it. The things that won us the California State Championship were in no way the same things that got us fourth at Nationals. California starts with a handicap.

It’s extremely challenging to represent California on behalf of the 400 teams who compete in our state. –Joel Block

And California’s one-county, one-team policy for the State Championship only worsens the problem. The qualification process diminishes the opportunity to train future years via junior varsity teams. Even more, it forces teams to polish material extremely early to compete at county, instead of further developing their technical skills in advance of state. And with mock trial having a certain subjectivity it most certainly results in the elimination of potential state (or national) champions at the county level. Subjectivity is worsened with a reliance on points over ballots. Other states do not operate this way. Nor should they.

Imagine a world where California could be both beautifully polished and technically strong. –Thom Scher

If California teams want to succeed at Nationals, we have to start placing a value on the same things that Nationals does. Jury trials. More time. Realistic evidentiary code. Impeachment, not creation of a material fact objections. Imagine a world where California could be both beautifully polished and technically strong. When I see amazing teams in California do amazing things at state, it’s bittersweet: the same things that are making them amazing there are unlikely to make them amazing at Nationals.

I’m of the belief that mock trial is most educational when it is competitive. –Thom Scher

There is a tension between mock trial as an educational activity and mock trial as a competitive activity. I’m of the belief that mock trial is most educational when it is competitive. These students are capable of amazing things, so we should take off the kid gloves and treat them like the brilliant competitors that they are. It may solve our Nationals problem, but more importantly it may also make mock trial more fun. The Nationals structure—much like Empire and Providence and Gladiator and, hopefully, Golden State—gives students the opportunity to simply do so much more than what is possible in a two-minute cross examination of an exhibit-less expert who has no foundation, let alone significance. The best mock trial teams are in California; we need to let them be the best that they can be.

 

The best mock trial teams are in California; we need to let them be the best that they can be. –Thom Scher

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Menlo School at Nationals.

Menlo School at Nationals.

 

Menlo School celebrates their first-place win at State competition.

 

Tamalpais High School at Nationals.

 

Coach David Vogelstein shows off his state and nationals champion tattoo.

 

Dos Pueblos celebrates their championship win at state.

 

Dos Pueblos celebrates their first-place win at State competition.

 

La Reina mock trial placed second at Nationals in 2013.

La Reina mock trial placed second at Nationals in 2013.

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