DANVILLE – By 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Danville High School was all but empty.
Most students had been dismissed hours earlier, free to go home and enjoy the evening. The hallways on the first floor were dark. The building was eerily quiet, the hustle and bustle of a school day replaced by the ticking of old classroom clocks.
But strained ears could make out a noise coming from the second floor, on the far left wing, where students spoke loudly and boldly in the library.
For these select few students, the night was just getting started. They would likely be practicing there for another couple of hours.
“When it gets close to competition, the kids don’t want to leave,” Noel Alden said.
Alden is the head coach of the Danville High School mock trial team, which will head to regionals on Friday with the opportunity of advancing to state. There’s a certain pressure to do so; the team has made it to state 11 out of the last 12 years.
This year, two of the program’s four teams made it to regionals, which will be held at Marion Municipal Court. They will compete against the likes of Buckeye Valley, Celina, Village Academy and Sylvania Southview, which won the state title last year.
“I think we have the capability to beat any of the teams there,” said junior attorney Vivian Hawk, who was one of three first-team members to qualify for state last year.
To qualify for state, a Danville team will have to win both sides of the regional trial. In mock trial competitions, the defense and prosecution sides of each team compete against different schools on the same day – one side goes in the morning and the other goes in the afternoon.
Each trial begins with opening statements. Then the prosecution will bring forth two witnesses, who are direct and cross-examined; the defense will then do the same. Competitions conclude with closing statements from each side. The three judges – who are sometimes real-life judges, but are always at least attorneys, Alden said – will then issue a ruling and determine a winner.
Two judges will rate each aspect of a team’s performance – from the opening statement to closing – on a scale of 1-10. The team with the higher score wins. The presiding judge will make rulings on objections throughout the trial.
“A really good trial will last an hour and 45 minutes,” Alden said. “So it’s a long haul and you’re trying to stay focused for that.”
Every team in the state receives the same case before the school year begins, and that case will be tried on Friday. This year’s case involves the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.
Over the course of the school year, Danville’s 24-member team has worked vigorously to understand and prepare for the case. This meant compiling binders full of research about case law – understanding the 10-plus Supreme Court cases that are quoted in the casebook and can be used to argue objections. They have also worked to understand the rules of evidence in this case. Ultimately, they must be prepared for every possible objection and counter-argument.
It takes long nights in the library to do the amount of reading, writing and sheer memorization involved with being one of the state’s top teams. And it’s not the only thing these students are involved in outside of school; Hawk said most of the competitors heading to regionals this weekend also participate in band and drama club.
“We’re pretty much splitting our time,” Hawk said. “We’re just really busy.”
But it’s worth it, team members agree, as they have learned skills over the years that transcend the courtroom. Through repetition and competition, the students have learned how to be clear, concise and confident. Multiple team members said Tuesday that their writing and public speaking skills have improved since they started.
11 members of the team will compete at regionals this weekend. “Team Gamma,” the program’s first team, consists of Karley Ackert (double witness role), Hawk (attorney), Calvin Huh (attorney), Kaleigh Loyd (witness), Addy Lucas (attorney/witness) and Daniel Parick (attorney). All are juniors.
“Team Alpha,” the program’s third team, consists of junior Josiah Foust (double attorney role), sophomore Jackson Kidwell (attorney/witness), junior Wade Mickley (witness), freshman Holly Sawicki (bailiff/timekeeper) and junior Katie Severns (attorney/witness).
Danville’s first team knocked out its fourth team at districts this year, while Ashland’s first team knocked out Danville’s second team. The program as a whole traveled to two mid-season competitions this year, at Miami University (Dec. 16) and the University of Cincinnati (Jan. 7).
Danville placed sixth out of 26 teams at the Cincinnati competition, Alden said. They have defeated the likes of Ashland, Lexington and St. Peter’s this season. They have also taken down major, private Division I schools such as St. Xavier and Elder out of Cincinnati.
Alden said his team is able to beat larger schools because of its work ethic and competitive mindset. Winning is expected at Danville.
“These kids think that they should (win), so why shouldn’t they? I will take my group of kids over anybody. No problem,” Alden said. “I mean, you can only compete with this number, and I’d take these kids every day. No question. They go in there and they fight, no problems.”
Alden is flanked by an all-star coaching staff, which includes Mount Vernon assistant law director Brittany Whitney (in her fifth year coaching) and Knox County juvenile/probate judge Jay Nixon (in his eighth year). Whitney coaches the first team, while Nixon coaches the second team.
Alden, an attorney at the Mount Vernon-based law firm Zelkowitz, Barry & Cullers, Ltd., coaches the fourth team (which is made up mostly of freshmen). The third team is coached by Hunter Webster, an English teacher at the high school. Alden is in his 18th year with the program, while Webster has coached for three years.
“It’s very rewarding,” Whitney said. “To see (the students) grow and develop and recognize their potential is one of the best things that you can do. Just watching their confidence develop, and what they can get up and do is amazing. And they don’t realize that they can do that, but this process lets them develop skills they didn’t even know they had.
“And just the relationships... I mean, we’re a family. We are.”
Friday will be the team’s biggest test yet, as two relatively young groups will face stiff competition throughout the day. Only 25-30 teams typically qualify for state, Alden said, out of the 390 that compete statewide.
If Danville qualifies, it will be the program's ninth straight trip to state.
Morning trials will begin Friday at 9:15 a.m. The afternoon session will commence at 1:15 p.m.