SHREWSBURY – What the Shrewsbury High School Mock Trial Team lacks in size, it makes up for in spirit, smarts, and savviness.
Throughout the mock trial season, the eight-member group defeated teams over double its size, becoming a top-16 program in the state of Massachusetts.
Start of the club
The team first formed two years ago, but COVID-19 stopped any hope of participating in statewide competition. Many founding team members graduated, and only four members remained heading into the new academic year. Eventually, four more students joined, and the team stood at eight members.
“We doubled in size,” Mock Trial Team Vice President Pranav Bonthu joked.
Having little to no trial experience, the group faced a long road to success in the courtroom. Elaine Gordon – a Worcester-based attorney who had previously been involved as a judge in mock trial – helped guide the team through the competitions.
“[Attorney Gordon] helped us a lot,” said Maya Welland, the president of the Mock Trial team who hopes to be a lawyer herself one day. “None of us had ever done a trial before, and this was all completely new to all of us. We needed a lot of help with understanding the laws.”
The jury was still out on the team, however. Timothy Scheer, adviser for the club and a Shrewsbury High School social science faculty member who teaches the school’s course on law, was the team’s jack of all trades. Scheer organized transportation, communicated with families and students, helped with coaching, provided motivation and ultimately led the team to success.
“Mr. Scheer pushed us in the right direction. At the beginning of the year, we were slacking – we only met once per week – but come mid-December, we really picked it up because Mr. Scheer was telling us we had to get on this,” Bonthu said.
“We were meeting every day after school,” Welland added.
Though Shrewsbury had developed impressive judicial acumen, the team faced significant disadvantages. Not only was the club new, but it was among the smallest teams in the state. Scheer noted that the team was often one student absence or COVID-19 case away from not being able to compete.
Other teams, like Franklin, were large enough that competitors could focus on one area of the case, but Shrewsbury had to be prepared for anything. Competition looks much like a regular courtroom, and competitors are tasked with memorizing affidavits, preparing for cross-examination, and various other important responsibilities. Many team members prepared for two or three different roles.
“They know exactly what they have to say, and they train for this all year. For us, we didn’t even know that we were going to do the tournament until December. You can’t be comfortable… we’re preparing for either side,” team member Rayaan Abdul Rasheed said.
“It was very hard having to memorize two roles,” team member Stella Dalton agreed.
However, many members of the team recognized that although the size of the team was an issue, it could also become an advantage and opportunity.
“I think there is a benefit to having a small team… It enabled us to work as a team so much better because there were only eight of us. We got really close, and we all knew the case so much better because we had to know so many parts of the case,” Welland said. “Other teams… knew their part, but we knew all parts.”
The Shrewsbury team, still determining where it stood in the Massachusetts Mock Trial scene, eventually defeated a Franklin squad that outmatched them in size and experience.
“We were so new to this [and] we didn’t really know how far we could push, especially against these experienced teams. Franklin, they definitely knew what they were doing, but we ended up having the better performance and won. That was a big morale boost for us,” Rasheed said.
“Our confidence really got boosted. We knew what we can really achieve now,” team member Tanushree Nekenti added.
Ali Kim, the Mock Trial Team’s treasurer, recalled the feeling in the courtroom after Shrewsbury had won.
“I started crying,” she said, “and then I went over and hugged attorney Gordon.”
“We came in with pretty low expectations. Obviously, when they reveal who wins, you’re not allowed to jump up and scream, so we were all trying to keep a straight face. Everyone was really excited,” Kim remembered.
“It was a top-five night in my life,” Welland said. “It was like the best feeling. It was pure happiness.”
Reflecting on the season
Throughout the months of competition, the team grew closer.
“I really feel close to all of these people here. Getting to be close to the team has definitely been my favorite part – even better than beating Franklin,” Welland said.
Scheer noted that at the first few meetings, the group sat at desks scattered throughout the room. Nowadays, the students are inseparable during meetings, sitting as close as possible to one another and sharing many jokes, laughs, and memories about the past year of competition.
“We’ve all progressed so much,” Nekenti said.
Scheer and Gordon both commented on how special the group is.
“I was impressed with how nice [the team members] were as individuals. They were really nice. They started late, and they really had to do a lot of work to catch up – they had no prior experience – and they did it. They worked as a team,” Gordon said.
“They really stepped up, and there was a lot of improvement. When they were challenged, they rose to the challenge… They gave as much time as they could give to this,” Scheer said.
Shrewsbury, now recognized among the state’s top programs, is garnering invitations to compete at schools throughout the state.
The eight-member club is also set to expand. In mid-April, the team held an open house event to attract new members. Over 20 students showed up, and the group anticipates doubling in size yet again.