‘A really big deal’
The Creighton Prep students representing Nebraska at the National High School Mock Trial Championships were, from left, Nathaniel Reyes, Matthew Mandolfo, Jaliya Nagahawatte, Chris Nubel, Dominic Mendlik, Mason Mandolfo and Ryan Laughlin. (Courtesy Patrick Cooper)
Creighton Prep Finishes Second at Mock Trial Nationals
By Scott Stewart
The Daily Record
A team from Creighton Preparatory High School, representing Nebraska, recently took home a second-place trophy from the National High School Mock Trial Championships.
The Creighton Prep team was made up of students Ryan Laughlin, Mason Mandolfo, Matthew Mandolfo, Dominic Mendlik, Jaliya Nagahawatte, Christopher Nubel and Nate Reyes along with attorney coaches Mark Laughlin and Patrick Cooper. They were among 46 teams from the United States, Guam, South Korea and the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands at the contest, which was held May 16 through May 18 at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.
For Nagahawatte, a senior who just graduated from Prep, one of the best parts of the national contest is seeing the different styles teams bring to mock trial.
“It is so cool to see the bonds that mock trial can create,” Nagahawatte said. “You see and learn so much about these people from different areas of the United States, different areas of the world, and how they can all come together around this one event.”
Nagahawatte said he’s always wanted to be a lawyer, and mock trial gave him an opportunity to see what litigation would be like. He said he plans to attend Creighton University this fall to study business.
He aspires to attend a Top 20 law school to study international law, possibly with a specialization in corporate or immigration law. He said his parents are Sri Lanka immigrants.
“Mock trial has really strengthened my desire to be a lawyer,” Nagahawatte said. “I’m thankful, lucky and grateful that Creighton Prep had mock trial and we had such great coaches.”
Teammate Dominic Mendlik, who just finished his sophomore year, said the national competition is a whirlwind. It starts with a couple scrimmages, and Creighton Prep was fortunate to scrimmage with Tennessee, whom they met again in the final after being selected among three undefeated teams after preliminary rounds.
Tennessee’s Agathos Classical School won the national championship after a close trial that was evaluated by 15 volunteer judges.
The Creighton Prep team started the tournament with a match against South Korea, an up-and-coming program they also played last year, Mendlik said.
“I was really lucky to be on the top team as a freshman,” Mendlik said. “I’m glad that I got the experience early. I have a foundation for the next couple years.”
Mendlik said he almost didn’t go out for mock trial and had planned to audition for the school musical instead. On a whim, he skipped auditions and went to try out for mock trial instead. He was a witness his first year, and this year he switched to a lawyer.
“I am thinking of going into law now,” Mendlik said. “I wasn’t in the beginning.”
Nebraska is traditionally one of the top states to beat, with several strong programs in the metro area that provide stiff competition.
Jerry Laughlin, a senior lawyer at Baird Holm and a coach at Duchesne Academy who assisted Prep at nationals, said the students improved after each scrimmage and trial, and became more familiar with the case materials
“They get to know where the problems are better, and for the lawyers in particular, it’s about when to object and when not to object,” Laughlin said.
Mark Laughlin, Jerry’s son and a partner at Fraser Stryker, said mock trial teaches confidence in public speaking and how to think on their feet. Ryan, who was a freshman, is Mark’s son and Jerry’s grandson.
“There’s a mock trial subculture around the country,” Mark Laughlin said. “These teams are very, very good, and I’m not sure that anybody who is not in it realizes what an achievement it is for these kids to finish second in the country ahead of a meaningful number of programs who have put more time and money and budget into it. It’s a really big deal for these kids.”
Pat Cooper, a partner at Fraser Stryker and current Omaha Bar Association president, said the students involved gain an appreciation for the U.S. justice system. They learn how to work as a team and learn the rules of evidence and other legal principles.
“The skills that are developed in the mock trial program are skills that certainly translate well beyond careers in the legal profession,” Cooper said.
The Prep team has won the right to represent Nebraska at the national competition for the past three years. Two years ago, the team finished 36th, and last year the team was 17th nationally.
The students’ second-place finish places them among the best performing teams in Nebraska history. In 2015, the team from Duchesne Academy won the national title, and Duchesne also finished second in 2016. A team from Skutt Catholic High School finished third nationally in 2013, according to a Nebraska State Bar Foundation news release.
The Nebraska State Bar Foundation organizes and coordinates the state’s Judge Lyle Strom High School Mock Trial Program, which is offered across Nebraska to high schools. Nebraska mock trial teams compete at both the regional and state level before the state winner advances to the national championship.
Doris J. Huffman, executive director of the foundation, said the program has a need for attorney coaches for new schools as well as volunteer judges at the regional competition. Douglas County has the largest concentration of teams, but the program has competitors from across the state and involves more than 1,000 students and teachers along with more than 400 volunteer legal professionals.
This past year also featured the inaugural Mock Trial Student News Reporting Contest at the state championship last year. Huffman said that contest will expand to the regional level next year, using media volunteers to evaluate mock trial stories, providing an opportunity for aspiring journalists to receive feedback from veteran journalists and members of the judiciary.
The nationally competing mock trial teams had seven weeks to prepare for the competition. The national case dates to 1914 and centered around the Elite Theatre, a popular vaudeville venue in Athens that was owned by two friends, Big Bob Oakley and Henry Bascombe. The case involved Georgia history, including the fact that Athens has long been home to musical innovation and inspiration, according to a release.
LEFT: Creighton Prep’s Jaliya Nagahawatte carries his teammate, Ryan Laughlin, while celebrating at the National High School Mock Trial Championships. RIGHT: Creighton Preparatory High School mock trial volunteer attorney coaches, from left, Mark Laughlin, Patrick Cooper and Jerry Laughlin hold their team’s second-place trophy at the National High School Mock Trial Championships in Athens, Ga. (Courtesy Patrick Cooper)