Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : March 2006

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The March to Annapolis

~This first installment of a three-part series previews the 2006 MSBA High School Mock Trial Program~

Though the rolling green hills that surround Cumberland's Bishop Walsh High School could not seem more removed from the urbanized milieu of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, the converse schools do share one distinctive trait: respective traditions of success in the annual MSBA High School Mock Trial competition. And with the 2006 season getting underway, these two schools look to continue their winning-ways behind the steadfast teaching of their coaches, whom have been the backbone throughout each program's achievements.

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For 23 years, the MSBA Mock Trial Competition, organized annually by the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP), has pitted high school teams from across Maryland against one another in an effort to understanding and appreciation of our legal system in a hands-on forum.

"This has been a nice addition to my teaching career," says Dan Evans, teacher-coach for the defending state champion Richard Montgomery mock trial squad, thus far 2-0 this season. "I have grown to love the kids as they hone their skills and I enjoy the competition."

A government and law teacher, the ever-competitive Evans has amassed an impressive record in his 17-year career, including the aforementioned championship, coupled with another in 1994 and 12 circuit championships in the last 14 years.

In Mock Trial competition, participating teams are aligned into eight circuits (corresponding to the circuit in which the school is located); subsequently, the best team out of each circuit advances to the playoffs, which is an eight-team, single-elimination format. The winner is crowned April 28 at the Robert C. Murphy Court of Appeals in Annapolis, Maryland, the site of the semi-finals and finals.

With 134 teams participating this year, approximately 500 reenactments will take place in circuit courtrooms throughout the state. This year's case is based on Maryland's reporter-shield law – the right of a reporter to maintain anonymity for his or her sources in a criminal investigation.

In order for the sixth-circuit Richard Montgomery to become the first-ever repeat champion and tie Towson High School with the most championships (three), Evans had to begin forming his team and preparing for this case in December 2005.

After culling a 12-person team from the 40-60 students who tried out, Evans began to formulate his strategy for the competition. He dissected the case thoroughly, he explains, developing "a clear theory of the case" with arguments that are concise.

Next came preparing the students for the matches. Evans' team practiced once a week, while individual meetings were held throughout the week during lunch, afternoons or even weekends.

"We try to make the kids sound like real lawyers," says Evans. "[During the match] they have to think on their feet and are not allowed notes. I try to recruit kids with panache – substance is important but style is needed."

Each year, Evans has consistently had his team in prime condition to compete at a high level by the start of the season. "He has a knack for getting these kids to the finals," notes Shelley Wojciechowski, Assistant Director of CLREP. "They don't just accept a win or loss; they go back and analyze everything – what they did well, what they didn't do well – and figure out what can we learn from here."

Of his multitudinous accomplishments, Evans considers building a team-like atmosphere while the kids construct their analytical skills and enhance their confidence to be his greatest feat.

"I liken it to an English teacher who helps [his or her] students craft a paper through four or five drafts," explains Evans.

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Bounded by mountains in western Maryland, Bishop Walsh is a strong statewide competitor, winning its circuit four out of the last five years. Consequently, the school stands to be a formidable opponent for not only Richard Montgomery but the entire Mock Trial field.

"We have a strong tradition of excellence here, and it's a high standard to live up to," says Jim Zamagias, teacher-coach of 7-0 Bishop Walsh.

Twenty years ago, the social studies teacher founded the Mock Trial program at Bishop Walsh and immediately made an impact, not only on his students, but on the competition as a whole by winning the state championship in 1989. Since then, Zamagias' program has maintained its high level of competition.

"We have the mindset of an athletic team," Zamagias adds. "We must be competitive and practice hard."

Competing in the fourth circuit, Bishop Walsh may have raised more than a few eyebrows in solidifying itself as a force in the mock trial competition. Zamagias credits the team's own circuit as the reason this unsuspecting school competes at such a high level.

"The strength of our circuit helps us in the Annapolis competition," notes Zamagias. "Our goal each year is to win our circuit; everything else is icing on the cake."

Bishop Walsh attorney-coach Brad Reed, Zamagias adds, is another major component of the program's success. Noted as a "co-coach", Reed attends every practice and, according to Zamagias, "provides a solid understanding of the legal framework."

The program's preparation is not entirely dissimilar to Richard Montgomery's; students try out by giving a speech on a controversial topic, then, after a brief question-and-answer session, Zamagias, along with three other judges, make cuts. Students who are well-spoken and composed are retained on the 12-person team. However, Bishop Walsh's practices are held as a team, two hours a day for three days a week, during the season – prior to the season, practices are only twice a week.

Part of Bishop Walsh's success is the experience the students have participating on the team.

"This improves speaking, listening and critical thinking skills," explains Zamagias. "It also brings together people of various interests…[and] different backgrounds. The success has been beyond my wildest dreams. It's terrific."

Though separated by 120 miles and contrasting cultural identities, these two schools have and will continue to tread down the same road as they embark on their lengthy march for Annapolis.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: March 2006

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