When Zach Lustbader and Neil Alacha walked into the courtroom at the American Mock Trial Association’s national championships, they came with a different tactic: Humor.
Taking advantage of a case unlike any previous competition, the co-captains of the Harvard Mock Trial Team cracked jokes and spoke in outlandish accents. The crowd, which extended out the door, roared and the Harvard team rode the laughter to its first national title, eking by Yale’s Mock Trial Team.
“We thought our competitive strength was humor and it seemed to relate to the jury,” Alacha says. “Usually the cases involve death or murder and the approach is more of a somber tone. The case for nationals was about election fraud and we wanted to give a more engaging performance. We made more jokes and made things seem silly.”
Alacha, who is a junior studying social studies, is originally from Brooklyn. When he was called to the witness stand, he exaggerated his accent as much as possible. Lustbader kept cracking jokes at the expense of witnesses as he did his cross-examination and the tomfoolery won over the audience and judge alike.
QUICK THINKING KEY, TOO
Both Alacha and Lustbader agree it was Harvard’s ability to think quickly with wit that made them victorious over Yale’s team. “Yale was more clever with their script than what we had,” Alacha says. “But we were able to think better on our feet and our adaption was better than what they did.”
“What Harvard does is we think well on our feet and quickly,” Lustbader explains. “They had some brilliant crosses and some cool ideas that we haven’t seen before. It was close much of the match but we edged them at the end.”
A FRIENDLY COMPETITION
According to Lustbader and Alacha, the rivalry with Yale is more of a friendly one.
“It’s interesting, there is not as much of a mock trial rivalry like in sports and academics,” Alacha says. “There are other schools we face a lot more regularly and think of them as more of rivals.”
Alacha says those schools are the University of Virginia and New York University. Ironically, Yale’s team offered a friendly practice scrimmage between schools the week before the championships but Harvard declined because of scheduling conflicts. “If we would have known what the results would be, we would have for sure tried harder to scrimmage,” Lustbader admits.
Lustbader says it was particularly special to have Harvard and Yale in the championship trial because both teams do not have coaches. “Us and Yale don’t have the help of lawyers or other advisors,” Lustbader explains. “That made it really special that we were both in the finals.”
AN EXTRA MEANINGFUL VICTORY
The tournament actually starts in February with teams from hundreds of schools competing in regional tournaments. Six teams from each region are selected to compete in the National Championship Tournament. The 48 teams selected are placed in two divisions of 24 teams. One team from each division squares off for the title.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Harvard has not won a national title before. They have had numerous top five or 10 placements and a few very close swings and misses in the final round. The last time they were in the final round was in 2006. They lost by a point to Virginia.
But if there was ever a year to win it, it was this year. Tragically, Harvard teammate and close friend, Angela Mathew died in a car accident traveling back from a tournament last year.
“Angela was one of my closest friends and the mock trial team is how I got to know her so well,” Lustbader says. “We came an enormous way this past year and we all have her in our thoughts. We came so close together after we lost her. It adds a lot of meaning to what we are doing. We are thinking of her and those memories and how close our community has come since them. She was brilliant at mock trial so we often think of the kinds of things she would do. We think about her as a friend and as we are competing.”
Alacha says Mathew was a huge reason behind this year’s success.
“One of the reasons we put so much energy into it this year is she would have graduated this year and wanting to do this for her,” says Alacha. “My mom was in the courtroom and another teammates dad was there and they said that they felt Angela’s presence within the room and I felt it too and having that motivation to take our sadness from last year and turn that energy into a productive force was what helped us win.”
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