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Fletcher High School’s mock trial team captures state title

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Fletcher High School Mock Trial Team
THE FLETCHER HIGH SCHOOL Mock Trial Team presents the prosecution side of the case against the defense team from Lawton Chiles High School during the final round March 8 at the Florida Law Related Education Association Florida High School State Mock Trial Competition in Orlando.

Fletcher High School’s mock trial team captures state title

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There was a brief moment during the Florida High School State Mock Trial Competition when Jacksonville attorney Amber Rumancik closed her eyes and allowed herself to be transported back in time.

Back to 1998. Back to that day when she experienced a feeling just like this. Back to the moment the verdict was read.

“Only this time,” Rumancik began, “this time we won.”

On the evening of March 8 when Rumancik opened her eyes in the Orange County Courthouse in Orlando, her beloved alma mater Duncan U. Fletcher High School was being crowned the winner of the 2014 Florida Law Related Education Association’s annual High School Mock Trial Competition after beating out 15 other schools representing their circuits across the state.

There would be no replay of that day in 1998 when Rumancik and her mock trial teammates learned they’d finished second.

“When I heard our name called, I mean. .. just thrilled. Just so incredibly thrilled for the kids, and for the school and for (longtime head coach) Ed (Lange). I definitely had tears in my eyes,” Rumancik, who was Duncan’s official “attorney coach” for the competition, said of her immediate feelings after Fletcher was declared the winner over second-place finisher Lawton Chiles High School of Tallahassee.

& #x201c;It was really an emotional moment,” said Lange, who has been a teacher at Fletcher for 33 years, the last 25 as the school’s “law professor.”

Rumancik’s private victory was overshadowed, of course, by the much bigger story that evening: A public school, without a ton of resources had just taken down a host of private schools en route to the title — including beating the 2013 reigning champs, American Heritage School, in the semifinals.

“We didn’t have an easy path to get to the finals — we beat very good teams from Marion, Boone, and Miami — and we felt like if we got past a really talented team from American Heritage, who beat us last year in the semifinals, we could win this thing,” said Fletcher High student attorney Antonio Gansley-Ortiz. “But when we beat American Heritage — and became the only team to reach the finals unbeaten — we knew we’d cleared a big hurdle.”

Gansley-Ortiz, the only male on the Fletcher mock trial team, had plenty of help along the way from his six female teammates: Seniors Nikki Moser, Katie Shapiro, and Georgia Pinner, and juniors Brooke Pierce, Ellie Padgett, and Anastasia Pedersen. Lawyers Jay Howell and Carson Lange also served as assistant coaches.

“I wouldn’t say we felt like we were the underdogs, but we did feel like we had something to prove — and we used that as a motivator,” said Shapiro.

This year’s case — State of Florida v. Jesse Davis — focused on high school student-athlete Jesse Davis, whose promising future was thrown into a tailspin after an anonymous tip led police to a large quantity of oxycodone being discovered in his vehicle at school. The onus on the teams was to determine: Where did the drugs come from? Who did the drugs belong to? Did Davis knowingly possess these drugs? These questions were brought to life while students presented the case as both the prosecution and the defense before panels of attorneys and judges.

To prepare Fletcher High for a rigorous three days of competition, Lange stuck with a plan this year that he initially hatched in 1996 — the year before FHS won its first Mock Trial State Championship.

“We once again didn’t stay in the team hotel like everyone else — and that’s something we’ve been doing every year since the year before we first won,” Lange said. “When we used to stay in the team hotel, there was always water balloon fights at midnight and late-night pizza deliveries. I just felt we would be more focused if we stayed off-site and used that time we spent together driving to and from each day to talk about our case and prepare and reflect.”

In each round, Moser and Shapiro handled the opening statements, while Gansley-Ortiz delivered the closing arguments and Pierce, Padgett, Pedersen, and Pinner acted as witnesses who had to be ready for anything.

“They had to be on-point, they had to be credible, and they couldn’t impeach themselves,” Lange said. “And they were cool and calm the whole way.”

Added Rumancik: “Everyone had such an important role, and with each passing round I began noticing that no matter what situation they were thrown into, this team had a will to win greater than any I’ve ever been on or coached. It was special thing to watch.”

When the moment that FHS had been preparing an entire year for finally came, the team didn’t disappoint. Moser and Shapiro double-teamed the opening statements to present the prosecution’s case — staring down the members of the jury, the judge, and throwing the occasional knowing glance in the direction of the defense.

The hook, so to speak, in Fletcher’s prosecution was a play on the famed saying, “All roads lead to Rome.” Or in this case, “All the evidence led back to the defendant — no matter how you looked at it,” Shapiro said.

It was simple, yet effective. But to tie it all up, they would need Gansley-Ortiz to deliver the closing of his life. And he did.

“There was a moment near the end when, because Chiles had done such a good job on the defense, where I really wasn’t sure who was going to win,” Rumancik said. “Then Antonio gave his closing arguments, and it was powerful and on-point.

“That was truly when I felt we had presented our case better than the other team.”

What happened next, however, no one expected.

“I gathered the kids together before the verdict was read and I told them this: ‘No matter who wins here, I want you to walk over to Chiles and shake their hands and tell them job well done,’” Lange said. “And when they announced that we had won, I couldn’t believe how calm our team was. No one yelled, or celebrated. They just calmly walked across the courtroom and did exactly what I’d asked.”

Fletcher hung back just briefly in the courtroom that Saturday night after everyone left. They soaked in the moment, took countless pictures, and gave everyone who was a part of the victory a chance to hold the trophy. On the ride home an hour later, word was already spreading through social media, as endless tweets and Facebook posts congratulated the team from FHS.

And the following Monday at school, the celebration only continued.

“When we walked into class, everyone clapped for us,” Shapiro said. “So that was pretty cool.”

As state champs, FHS secured a spot in the National High School Mock Trial Competition in Madison, Wisconsin, and will need to riase between $12-14, 000 by April 1

For sponsorship information for Fletcher High School’s trip to the National High School Mock Trial Competition, contact Ed Lange, Fletcher High School, 700 Seagate Ave., Neptune Beach 32266, 904-247-5905, ext. 1202, or [email protected]

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