‘The show must go on’: Iowa City High School sweeps virtual State Mock Trial Tournament to advance nationally

The City High School mock trial program didn’t allow COVID-19 to stop them from making history with a virtual season.


Ayrton Breckenridge

A portion of Team Little and Women (LAW) of Iowa City High poses for a portrait on Wednesday, April 7. Team LAW took first place out of 84 teams at the Mock Trial State Championship.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

In the weeks leading up to Iowa City High School’s senior Mock Trial team taking first place in the State Mock Trial Tournament, the group found themselves frequently knocking on wood.

“It’s funny, one of my teammates said after we had won the championship, ‘I was looking forward to not having to hear the knocking on wood all the time,’” Francesca Brown, a City High senior and member of the winning team, said. “But immediately when we started discussing nationals, we started knocking on wood again.”

Fortunately for City High’s senior Mock Trial team, knocking on wood materialized into statewide victory and advancement to the National Mock Trial Tournament beginning May 13 to May 15.

Mock Trial is a high school and collegiate program that simulates a real-life court experience. Students take up roles as attorneys and witnesses to form cases for both sides of a hypothetical legal problem.

Although each season’s new legal scenario is entirely fabricated, competition rules and procedures emulate those used in Iowa’s judicial system.

City High’s Mock Trial program is relatively new among others in the state, created in 2011 by Chip Hardesty, a district teacher and coach for City High’s Mock Trial program.

City High Mock Trial coach Lisa Williams said history was also made in City High’s sophomore and junior Mock Trial teams when both teams advanced to state. The junior squad forged ahead into the semi-final round, earning third place.

“Even if the seniors hadn’t won, there still would have been a historic performance from the juniors. We had never had a team compete in the semi-finals,” Williams said. “The sophomore team also competed great. It was a big year for City High mock trial.”

Iowa Mock Trial rules and procedures remained intact through the 2021 season, but the competition format shrunk to the bounds of Zoom squares.

Williams conducted the team’s practices virtually at the beginning of the season, she said, but her basement later became the team’s rehearsal room and competition location.

“As we got closer to the competition date, we realized that we needed a place to compete. Some teams had 10 students on the team, and they’d all be in 10 different locations at their homes, and then other teams would have part of the team or all of the team together in a library or some other school classroom,” Williams said. “We figured out that it would be logistically kind of hard to be at City High. We looked around, and then we actually ended up having the team compete at my house. In the basement, it’s a larger space, and we came up with a COVID mitigation plan.”

City High senior Shoshanna Hemley, a member of the state champion team, said her team adjusted to the competition’s Zoom format efficiently, even as digital complications arose.

“I was giving my closing statement in the final round of the state championship. We had gone seven rounds of doing this case, and during the last thing we had left to do, someone watching the round unmuted,” Hemley said. “So, I had to practically yell my closing so that we could hear over this person who accidentally unmuted while watching.”

Hemley didn’t let the interruption startle her, however.

“I just kept going,” she said. “I also do theater and improv, and you know that saying — the show must go on.”

Shortly following the Zoom hiccup, Brown said the senior group learned of their state victory in William’s basement.

“It was such a moment of elation. We were all just so excited and giddy and jumping up and down afterward,” Brown said. “When they were delivering the results, we had formed a chain of hands, and we were holding each other’s hands and squeezing so hard.”

However, the work is not yet over for City High Mock Trial — the senior team is now preparing for the National Mock Trial Tournament, Williams said. The team is now reconstructing prosecution and defense arguments for a brand new case, she said.

“We definitely have way less time. The [national competition case] came out on April 1. So, we get about six weeks,” Williams said. “…I think this team is really confident for nationals, and they should be really confident. I told them if they work hard and if they do what they need to do between now and May 13, I think that they can expect great things at Nationals.”

City High junior Sophia Wagner, a junior Mock Trial member, said she and the rest of the junior team are extending their season despite the state tournament’s conclusion.

“Just to kind of help them so that they have someone to practice with before competition, the junior team will be learning the case and scrimmaging them,” Wagner said. “Another reason that we’re helping with the Nationals case is just to get in more practice. We’ve talked about potentially even doing like a summer just practice case on our own.”

The junior teammates will occupy the new senior team once the 2021 class graduates. Wagner said the junior team would be prepared to build off this year’s success during the 2022 mock trial season.

“Everyone works really hard, and it’s a great team,” Wagner said. “We all are equally invested, and we just love Mock Trial so much.”