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Furman Mock Trial Team advances to nationals

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National powers are never supposed to just be happy to be there. But members of the Furman mock trial team, despite being ranked 11th in the country, won’t lie: They’re just happy to be there.

The Paladins conquered a tough field—and looming external pressure—at the American Mock Trial Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) Tournament held March 11-13 in Decatur, Ga., to earn a coveted spot in next month’s Bell Tower National Championship in Greenville.

Not only was Furman’s streak of 19 consecutive trips to nationals on the line, but also if one of the two Paladin teams in Decatur hadn’t finished in the top six the University would have not been allowed to compete in the event it is hosting for the first time. Furman Team A rolled through the competition, however, piling up six wins, one tie and a single loss to finish in a tie for second with Georgia Tech—a half point behind Duke.

Team B just missed advancing as well with four wins, one tie and three losses. Overall, Furman qualified four teams for the ORCS after strong performances at a pair of regionals in early February, but were only allowed to send two.

“I am exceptionally proud of our A team’s effort to earn Furman’s 20th consecutive bid to the national championships. What an accomplishment from a remarkable group of young people and coaches,” Furman Political Science Professor and Mock Trial Team Director Glen Halva-Neubauer, Ph.D., said. “But I also want to make sure that our B team’s efforts are noted.  That team had a bit of bad luck along the way which led to it not qualifying for the Bell Tower, but you would have never known this was the case when it took on Duke’s B team in the final round and did so well against the Blue Devils that it knocked Duke B out of the Big Dance when most thought it was a shoo-in for the Bell Tower.”

Since Furman was awarded the competition, Halva-Neubauer has worked countless hours raising the money and organizing the daunting logistics required to bring a thousand people to the smallest city to ever host the tournament. But nothing has caused him more stress than the prospect of Furman not getting to compete in the competition. Nathan Thompson ’16, co-captain Julia Reynolds ’17, and their teammates have toiled in that shadow since September.

“Just wanting to make sure that we deliver and actually get a team through to the tournament was giving us a significant amount of stress,” Thompson admitted, “and so from that perspective we’re just really glad to have that weight off of our shoulders to know that we’re going to have a chance to compete on home turf and represent our university at the tournament that we’re hosting.”

Six wins at the ORCS are a guarantee of advancing, but Furman was two short entering the final day. That only motivated the Paladins to work even harder.

“Julia and I pulled an all-nighter prepping for that last case. We stayed up until 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning and woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready to go to trial,” Thompson said. “And then we went in and hit a talented Pittsburgh team but were lucky to come away with two wins and a trip to the national championship.”

The lack of sleep didn’t prevent Thompson from earning an Outstanding Witness Award along with teammates Kaitlyn Pugh ’17 and John Gillespie ’18. The students spent spring break on campus practicing for Decatur, which Thompson considers a blessing in disguise.

“We stayed on campus for the whole week because our tournament was the last weekend of spring break, so we got to hang out and spend time together, which we don’t always have a lot of time to do,” he said. “I think it really helped with camaraderie and team spirit.”

Now Furman turns its sights toward something it has never done: Winning a national championship. Despite the Paladins reign from 2000-2009 as the team with the best overall record, the school’s best showing was in 2002—placing second in their half of the 48 team bracket. Thompson hopes competing on familiar turf will help put the team over the top.

“This will be the first and last time for anyone currently in the program to compete for a national title with home-field advantage, so we’re looking forward to that,” he said. “We really do see this as an opportunity where we’re familiar with the judging style, especially in South Carolina because our coaches are South Carolina attorneys and they’re familiar with how things work here.”

Brad Rustin, IV ’03, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP in Greenville, works just as hard as the current team members as a volunteer coach. The national tournament, he says, brings out the best schools and exposes the weakest.

“The biggest difference in nationals—and I hate to say this because it sounds somewhat trite—is there’s nowhere to hide. It is the 48 best teams in the nation … Every single round you’re going to be going against a team that is a similar level of talent to your team, and it becomes much more of a focus on the slightest nuances, and one mistake can cost you the national championship,” Rustin said. “It forces everyone on your team to pull together, because if one person doesn’t put the score on the board then you don’t win the national championships.”

As if the pressure of a national title was not enough, the final tournament features a brand new scenario that teams are given barely four weeks to prepare for.

“Imagine 48 of the most gifted teams of eight people in the country being given four weeks to come up with every single nasty, evil thing they can pull out of a case and throw at you. And you will never have heard it, and you’re going to deal with it on the fly in front of a panel of lawyers who are judging how you respond and what your response will be,” Rustin said. “That’s what they’ve got to be ready for, and that makes the national championships a different animal: You can’t script it.”

David Koysza ’01, a veteran of the mock trial team (1997-2001) and now regional counsel for Boeing Canada and Latin America, says people shouldn’t overlook the University’s accomplishments advancing to the big stage for two straight decades.

“Teams have become more and more sophisticated. The competition has gotten better,” he said. “And as a result, every year that Furman makes the national championship is an even bigger accomplishment than the year before.”

Remarkably, the team is comprised primarily of underclassmen—Thompson is joined by only one other senior on the team, Jonathan Kubakundimana. Reynolds is the only junior. In spite of their age, every person competing this time around also competed in nationals last year, which makes Furman an unusual combination of youth and experience.

“Last year we finished seventh in our bracket and didn’t graduate a single person who competed at that national tournament,” Thompson said. “It’s an exciting time because we have a very competitive team and a very young team, so the future is bright as well as the present.

The Bell Tower National Championship will be held April 15-17 on the Furman campus and in downtown Greenville. Read more about the Bell Tower National Championship.

Last updated March 30, 2016
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Clinton Colmenares
News & Media Relations Director