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West Linn tops all challengers in states mock trial event

Intense preparation for high school mock lawyers is key to state victory; WLHS faces national team in May
by: Cliff Newell, 
Showing their state trophy are members of the West Linn High School Mock Trial team, from left, Charles Steele, William Farnbach, Nina Dalgaard and Lauren Currey. At far right is team coach and WLHS instructor Matt Kellogg. The team will compete at nationals in May at Dallas, Texas.

Joy, pride, hilarity.

That is what you get from Matt Kellogg's West Linn High School team that won the Oregon Mock Trial Competition on Saturday.

Also relief. Big, brawny football player Charles Steele talks like it was a miracle he didn't hightail it out of the courtroom at Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland when he had to portray a racist skinhead before a packed courtroom.

Plus an august panel of judges that included the Hon. Ancer Haggerty, now chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Portland and, remarkably, the judge who heard the original 1990 trial on which the mock trial was based - the murder of Ethiopian Mulgeta Seraw by a gang of skinheads on the streets of Portland.

'I was mostly terrified,' Steele admitted. 'I felt like I was in the Supreme Court and the judges were sitting 10 feet above me. My heart was in my throat.'

Certainly there was a fear factor at work in their effort. But mainly Kellogg's 12-member team was simply great. The greatest team ever from a school with an outstanding tradition in state mock trail competition.

'There was a panel of five judges listening, watching, critiquing,' said competition director Barbara Rost, program director for the Classroom Law Project. 'They came back with the verdict that West Linn had performed the best.'

As a West Linn resident, Rost was especially happy to see her hometown team take the top prize.

'West Linn has been in the game so long,' Rost said. 'It was wonderful to see them in the finals. I was thrilled to see them win it.'

A teacher of honors law at WLHS, Kellogg has taken his team to state many times over the past nine years, finishing as high as third place. But this year was different, he said, because the students wanted it so much.

'The dedication of this team was incredible,' Kellogg said. 'They weren't doing this for a grade or a credit. They did it because they wanted to do it.'

Just as much as symbol of their accomplishment as the trophy they won are the sketch pads of Nina Dalgaard.

'She filled three or four of them with notes,' said William Farnbach. 'This was all we thought about for months.'

The team was stung last year when it didn't even make it out of regional competition, and Dalgaard said, 'That motivated us to come back this year.'

Besides motivation and sheer hard work, the team had another factor in its favor: chemistry.

'That was huge,' Kellogg said. 'That is nothing you can coach or plan for. This team came together as juniors, and from that point they came on incredibly well.

'That made them simple to coach. All I had to do was open the doors and they would practice.'

Even with the right mix of ingredients, the team was concerned about its first round encounter on Friday.

'We were pretty worried,' Farnbach said. 'We were thinking we might be hit by our usual Friday Night Curse. But on Saturday we were on fire. We got stronger and stronger as we went along.'

'I can't think of a single mistake we made,' said Lauren Currey, who gave the opening statement. 'That's how far on track we were.'

Of the high-pressure atmosphere, Currey said, 'It was very intimidating. But you've got to think they're only people and look them in the eye.'

Farnbach added, 'There wasn't a single thing we hadn't prepared for 10 times.'

Judge Haggerty, probably the most intimidating person they had to impress, made note of one special quality the West Linn team possessed.

'What happens so often in mock trials, and even with real lawyers, is that they do so much preparation that they don't actually hear what is said in a court hearing,' Haggerty said. 'But this team paid attention to what was said and they used it.'

To the winner goes the joy. When it was announced that final round opponent West Salem had taken second place, Farnbach said, 'I felt like jumping up and down. To me it was like the Super Bowl of mock trials.'

'We screamed,' Dalgaard said. 'We had big group hugs. Before we were operating under the radar at school. Now everyone is paying attention to us.'

'I don't think I can put it into words,' said Kellogg of his team's triumph.

As the champions of Oregon, the team will proceed to the national mock trial competition in Dallas, Texas on May 9-11. That means another month of crunching preparation.

'I don't plan on sleeping,' Farnbach joked. 'It's not an option.'

Watch out, America. These West Linn kids are going to trial.

Team members include Lauren Currey, Natalie Douglas, Nina Dalgaard, Eric Nesbit, William Farnbach, Hannah Cochran, Amy Brumbaugh, Karen Vance, Maggie Goldstein, Marta Hanson and Charles Steele.

Attorneys and judges coaching the team were Kathie Steele, Tiffany Davidson, Eric Tait and Tom Elliott.

Matt Kellogg is currently raising funds for the team's trip to nationals. Those interested in contributing can call him at 503-673-7835.