For Kent State University's Mock Trial Team, competition is a matter of life and death.
Well, not actual death.
The nine students on the team wrapped up their season this week after competing in the American Mock Trial Association Founding Fathers Regional Competition at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. The team, composed of all first- or second- year members, took part in a mock trial based on the scenario of a grieving husband suing a diving company after his wife drowns during a diving excursion.
Led by Peter C. Kratcoski Sr., an emeritus and adjunct professor of sociology at KSU, and Peter C. Kratcoski Jr., a Kent attorney and KSU instructor, the team operates more like an independent study experience than a traditional class. Students in the club familiarize themselves with the details of a cases, preparing for roles as both attorneys and witnesses in front of competition judges, who rank their performances alongside students from competing teams.
Although the team from KSU did not advance from past the regional competition at Washington and Jefferson College, two students, Zachary Nickels and Thomas Walsh, won all-regional tournament awards for their performances as witnesses in the event. KSU's competition at the event included teams from Carnegie Mellon University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.
Walsh, who played a U.S. Coast Guard special agent at the trial, said his previous drama experience helped him excel as a witness.
"I was in theater all four years of high school, that probably contributed to (the recognition)," Walsh said.
He said witnesses in mock trials try not to give too much away to the opposing teams' attorneys, while also sticking to the facts and refraining for acting hostile.
Kratcoski Jr., who took over as the team's supervisor after founder Dr. Thomas Hensley retired, said students have to combine acting skills with a strong knowledge of the material in order to be successful at mock trial competitions.
"It's really a combination of the two," he said. "They really have to know their material or they get marked down significantly."
Kratcoski Jr. said the competition judges have reined in the costumes and acting flourishes a little in recent years, in an effort to put the emphasis back on the material.
"It was almost getting too dramatic," he said.
Kratcoski Sr. added that students need "knowledge of the case and the ability to think on your feet" to succeed at mock trial events.
Team members described mock trial as a team event, but one with a lot of pressure on the individuals. In sports terms, it might compare to gymnastics or wrestling, where individual athletes' scores get added to the whole.
Freshman Justin Martin said one member can put up a great performance, but "if the rest of the team isn't picking it up, it can be a train wreck."
"It's definitely a team sport, but there's a lot of individual preparation," freshman Mary Waddington said.
The team meets once a week, but that "individual preparation" outside of class may be the key to success. Nickels, a freshman who competed in mock trials throughout high school, credited his high finish among witnesses at the competition to the 10 to 15 hours per week he spends on practice and research in his free time.
Nickels said one of his goals in college is to help the team mature into a force that can compete "at the national level."
Kratcoski Jr. said preparing with the team helps students, especially those thinking about going to law school, improve skills key to being successful in their future careers.
"One of the first things we see is they grow in confidence," he said about his students.
Contact this reporter at 330-298-1126 or firstname.lastname@example.org