All about conviction: PVPA team wins state, heads to nationals of Mock Trial Championship

Eliza Tuthill, a co-captain and acting lawyer on the team, works with Mary-Lou Rup, a former Hampshire County Superior Court judge and legal coach for the team.

Eliza Tuthill, a co-captain and acting lawyer on the team, works with Mary-Lou Rup, a former Hampshire County Superior Court judge and legal coach for the team.

Eliza Tuthill, another co-captain and lawyer on the PVPA mock trial team, works with Mary-Lou Rup, a former Hampshire County Superior Court judge and legal coach for the team.

Eliza Tuthill, another co-captain and lawyer on the PVPA mock trial team, works with Mary-Lou Rup, a former Hampshire County Superior Court judge and legal coach for the team.

Eden Shenk, Fiona Yates and Talia Villalobos-Sharone, PVPA students on the mock trial team, work with history teacher and coach Gary Huggert.

Eden Shenk, Fiona Yates and Talia Villalobos-Sharone, PVPA students on the mock trial team, work with history teacher and coach Gary Huggert. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

Fiona Yates works with Talia Villalobos-Sharone, both co-captains acting as lawyers on the PVPA mock trial team, prepare with teammates for the coming national championship in the beginning of May.

Fiona Yates works with Talia Villalobos-Sharone, both co-captains acting as lawyers on the PVPA mock trial team, prepare with teammates for the coming national championship in the beginning of May. STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

By EMILEE KLEIN

Staff Writer

Published: 04-15-2024 4:29 PM

Modified: 04-16-2024 2:09 PM


SOUTH HADLEY — Prepare, prepare, prepare.

That’s the motto that mock trial coach Gary Huggert passes along to each new mock trial team at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School, a motto that took the team to the state finals for the past three years. But that wasn’t enough for co-captains and seniors Fiona Yates, Talia Vilalobos-Sharone and Eliza Tuthill. They wanted to take home the title for their former team members, their coach, and themselves.

They did just that.

On March 22, PVPA’s mock trial team won the Massachusetts Bar Association’s 2024 Mock Trial State Championship against Gann Academy, the New Jewish School of Waltham, taking home the fourth state title in the team’s history. The team will travel to Delaware to compete at the National High School Mock Trial Championship at the beginning of May for the chance to argue and act their way to a national victory.

Mock trial is an extracurricular activity and competition where students take on the roles of lawyers and witnesses in a simulated trial. Each team receives a real former case and prepares opening and closing statements, direct examinations and cross examinations for one or both sides of the court case. Each attorney and witness is scored based on their arguments, knowledge of the case and acting ability. The latter skill is where PVPA’s team really shines.

“One of the reasons we consistently win as a school is it’s a performing arts school. So a lot of us have an acting background, which helps us be good witnesses and also lawyers,” freshman mock trial team member Serena Gross said.

The school’s mock trial team previously won the state championships in 2005, 2011 and 2012 and were finalists nine other times in the team’s 28-year history. PVPA faced off against Gann Academy in last year’s state finals and lost, so Yates said the victory was that much sweeter.

“I wanted to win because now we’ve been in finals three years in a row and got second place, and this is my final shot,” Yates said.

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The path to victory, however, came with a couple roadblocks. The team’s first two trials in their regional tournament got canceled after their opponents forfeited, leaving new team members with little court experience for later matches.

“(In) early rounds of the playoffs, we weren’t as polished as we would have been had we had a couple of other scrimmages,” Huggert said. “But they just picked it right up.”

Huggert, a history teacher at the school, credits the team’s quick growth to the experience and leadership of Yates and the other two co-captains and seniors, Vilalobos-Sharone and Tuthill, and the team’s camaraderie. During the trials, team members pass notes, share reactions and change their closing statements all without the guidance of Huggert, who sits in the audience taking notes.

“They were able to kind of pick each other up when they had a low spot,” he said.

While the team’s improvisational and acting skills helped paper over their inexperience during trials, most the team’s work occurs before anyone steps foot in a courtroom. The team begins preparing for trials by reading through the case trials and coming up with a theme. Then the writing process begins: Attorneys write their closing and opening statements, direct examinations and cross examinations while the witnesses write their answers. Huggert and Mary-Lou Rup, a retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court, reviews the papers and picks them apart, helping the students identify weaknesses in their arguments and delivery.

Huggert credits team members’ dedication.

“I think the preparation and the willingness of the kids to work. I think the key is time for preparation and time to work and rework and rework and so forth,” Huggert said.

By the end of the state championship rounds, mock trial members Simon Berthiaume and Serena Gross were both on their ninth version of their direct examinations. Luke LaPlante, one of the nine members of the team who will perform at the national tournament, said the whole team makes revisions up until the last moment.

“We make revisions the day before the finals — like we’ve already won 10 trials and we’re still changing things,” he said.

It’s this detailed process that facilitates collaboration. Yates said she calls Tuthill to critique her closing statement, while Vilalobos-Sharone FaceTimes her teammates at 9 p.m. to run ideas by the team. They also hold objection fests, where the team collectively throws objection after objection at an attorney, and the attorney has to answer each one.

“I think another thing is learning how to organize something so big because in a case — you have so many little details you have to pull together to prepare one big argument,” Tuthill said.

For the rest of April, the team will prepare for the national championship on May 3 and 4, where nine of the team members will preform the case and the rest will help organize and critique their acting and arguments. The seniors are enjoying their last competition as mock trial captains.

“I think the value of working really hard for something like with a bunch of people and just like putting your all into it … is something that I want to do for the rest of my life because it’s just so much fun,” Vilalobos-Sharone said.

The team is accepting donations on the PVPA website to cover the cost of their trip Wilmington, Del.