In the quiet, awkward moments before the national winner was announced Sunday night, members of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s mock trial team sat stiffly at their desks at home. On the Zoom screen, some wore nervous smiles, others covered their mouths with their hands.
They’d been working for months, some for years, dedicating at least 20 hours a week to practice, staying up late on their laptops in the evening hours after remote classes all day. Because of the pandemic, some members had never met in person. And ahead of the final, other teams scoffed at UMBC in online forums and questioned whether the Baltimore college, ranked No. 24 in the country, could win.
But in one of the closest finishes in the 36-year history of the American Mock Trial Association’s national tournament, the Retrievers pulled ahead by just five points, knocking off No. 2-ranked Yale University and capturing the national championship.
Broadcast live on Facebook, the screen erupted as the UMBC team began screaming, pumping their arms. Team president Sydney Gaskins almost seemed to drop to the floor. Yale members applauded politely.
“Most people expected Yale to win,” said Benjamin Garmoe, 31, a Baltimore attorney who is the team’s lead coach. He is a UMBC alumnus and was captain of the mock trial team in 2011-12.
Gaskins, a senior who has won multiple national prizes for her mock trial work, had spotted comments ahead of the final, wondering if UMBC could face “the top dog.”
“There are forums with people sharing who they think the top competitors will be,” said Gaskins, 21, a political science major. “It’s always the big name schools like Harvard, Yale and UVA.”
But UMBC — which has fielded a dominating chess team for years, and whose 2018 men’s basketball team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history by toppling No. 1 seed University of Virginia — has been steadily building its mock trial team into a powerhouse.
“In my freshman year, we finished eighth in our division, and we were top 25 in the country in 2018,” said Thomas Azari, 20, the team’s vice president and a junior political science major. “It’s the hardest thing ever to make the nationals … We’ve never made it to the final round before.”
The UMBC Retrievers are a diverse bunch. One member is from Russia; another is from Venezuela. Some members are first-generation college students, and all are from the public school system in Maryland. On their university webpage, they refer to themselves as “UMBC’s most successful academic sport.”
Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of UMBC, sees their win as a snapshot of what a small public college can do.
“This is a great American story: you can be middle class, attend a public school and still be the best in the country,” Hrabowski said. “It was a moment that took my breath away. Seeing their faces was an unbelievably incredible moment.”
The trial association, founded in 1985 by Dean Richard Calkins of Drake Law School, aims to help students become critical thinkers and public speakers. Each year, roughly 700 teams from more than 400 colleges and universities compete in its intercollegiate competitions. The top 48 teams participate in the national championship tournament.
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For the final, each team had 24 days to prepare their cases. The UMBC team was assigned to be prosecutors trying to prove that a landlord had not rectified an ongoing bedbug infestation. The defense was done by the Yale team, who tried to prove that the tenant, a hoarder, was the cause of the infestation.
It was daunting. Yale has made it to the nationals several years in a row — and has already won a championship.
With the pandemic, in addition to remote practices, the UMBC team didn’t get a chance to compete in person during the academic year. The students had been used to traveling to cities like New York, Philadelphia, Richmond and Chicago. Sometimes, their best practices would take place at a team dinner at a Chili’s restaurant or a Holiday Inn.
“That’s hard to replicate,” said coach Garmoe. “Some of these students have never even met me.”
But the team’s leader, Gaskins, said that on Sunday morning, she had a strange feeling. She did not feel intimidated.
“I woke up that morning, the sun was shining,” she said, “and it felt like the perfect day to win a national tournament.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner
This article has been updated. A photo caption on an earlier version misspelled Poushali Banerjee. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.