Duke. Harvard. Michigan. Rhodes College. Yale.
The University of Virginia’s undergraduate mock trial team recently ventured to Los Angeles and defeated them all in head-to-head competition to win the National Championship Tournament.
Coached by UVA School of Law professor Toby Heytens, the team of seven students rebounded from last year’s second-place finish, and on April 23 defeated defending champion Yale University, 6-1, in the final round. Overall, more than 600 teams competed in the preliminary rounds and 48 teams competed during the American Mock Trial Association’s annual collegiate competition.
“This year we came back with a lot of the same people on the team, and hungrier than ever,” said fourth-year student Shray Gupta, the team’s president. “To be in that national final round against Yale for the second time in a row, and then to reverse what happened last year, was absolutely exhilarating.”
Heytens said talent, hard work and “a little bit of luck” were key to the team’s success.
“I’m especially proud of the way the students harnessed the disappointment of coming so close last year into a fierce determination to finish the job this year,” Heytens said. “Most people who make the final round are visibly nervous, but our students were as confident and loose as I’ve ever seen them.”
Heytens has coached the team for the past 11 years, helping lead them to two national championships in that time. He marshaled a host of resources to help the team succeed, including holding practices at the Law School. The coaching team included Ryan Faulconer, a 2008 graduate of the Law School; 2016 Law School grad Reedy Swanson, who competed on UVA’s mock trial team as an undergraduate; current law students Megan Keenan, Ryan Leonard and Cody Reeves; incoming law student Amanda Swanson; and other former UVA and mock trial competitors.
Heytens “is absolutely instrumental to everything that we do,” Gupta said. “As the head coach, he’s the person who’s driving a lot of what we do in terms of making sure our directs, crosses and speeches are where they need to be.”
Four competitors – Lily Brock, Sabrina Grandhi, Darby Hobbs and Allie Piacenti – were named All-American attorneys or witnesses. A second UVA team tied for fourth place, the highest finish by the “B” team in six years.
“One of the things that makes our program so distinctive is our depth,” Gupta said. “Very few programs advance two teams in the national tournament, and we are one of only three to have done it two years in a row.”
Gupta, who plans to work in Chicago for Ernst & Young after graduation, said the students come from a variety of disciplines, from computer science to psychology, and head into a variety of careers, including law.
“This activity is truly special,” Gupta said. “It’s hard to find something that comes close to it in terms of the critical thinking, the teamwork and the creativity it demands. Something that’s distinctive about UVA’s program in particular is its drive to win and the competitors’ understanding of what it takes to win with people that you care about and love.”
In the early stages of the competition, students work from the same case, but the final competition involved preparing for a brand-new case in just over three weeks, Gupta said.
“We wouldn’t be able to do anything that we accomplished without the help of a lot of people,” he said.
Heytens added that the last few weeks included late nights, practice-packed weekends and “long email threads.”
“Again and again, these students were willing to put the good of the team over their own personal self-interest and pull together toward a common goal,” he said.
Heytens thanked the numerous members of the Law School community – including professors, staff and students – who helped with judging scrimmages.
“It means the world to the students, to their families and to me,” he said.