By Anne O'Connor
AYER -- Forget about Judge Judy. The Mock Trial Team rocks both sides of an argument.
The dedicated team was one of eight to make it to this year's round at Worcester Superior Court. They defeated teams from schools larger and wealthier than Ayer Shirley Regional High School and had a blast doing it.
The team had to be ready to play the part of the defense and the prosecutor. Some were lawyers, some witness and some were both. Everyone helped to prepare the case.
"These kids, these people, amaze me," said head coach Peter Gubellini. "They just do."
In the first round, they defeated Newton High South, a school of almost 2,000 students. In the afternoon, a prestigious prep school, Phillips Academy Andover, fell to Ayer Shirley.
The local team from a high school with about 400 students, was one of the top eight teams in the region in the 2017 competition held by the Massachusetts Bar Association.
The morning of the final round of regionals, held at Worcester Superior Court House, Ayer Shirley lost by four points to reigning state champions Newton North High School.
The rewards are great, both in the pride of accomplishment and in the thrill of the process.
During cross-examination, the opposing team messed up a question that Tony Winship, an Ayer sophomore, had to answer. Knowing the facts, "I got around it," he said.
Practical skills play a part.
"My presentation skills got better," said 10th-grader Shandy Ndjigue of Ayer who described herself as sort of shy.
The mock trials help some of the students chose a potential life path.
Senior Jillian Folger from Shirley is going to American University intending to become a lawyer.
Kelsie McAllister, a junior from Ayer, has a feeling she might want to be a lawyer too. Her favorite part of the preparation was writing the questions the lawyers would ask.
The program is a huge commitment that students and their coach work into their already busy schedules. Between the end of October and the end of March, they meet daily for 90 minutes after school and on Saturday.
Gubellini, a history and law teacher at the high school, does not receive a stipend for his work with the team. The district pays the entry fee and for buses.
He beamed as his team talked about the experience.
"I just really enjoyed it," said Molly Kadogan, an Ayer junior. "It keeps you on your toes."
Without mock trials, she never would have become best friends with Jillian Folger. They are in different grades.
Success takes lots of hard work. Students memorize questions and arguments and learn to improvise answers.
"It's just cool being able to think on my feet," said junior Michelle Woodland from Ayer.
A blackboard in the back of the classroom was filled with a stick figure drawing of the mock trial "family." Everyone except the beagle with stomach issues was on the board. No further details on the dog were forthcoming.
Camaraderie took first place in the classroom and in the courtroom.
It helped being from the smallest school in the completion, said Nicole Patano, a junior from Ayer.
"We're close. We can work together and mesh together better than other schools," Kelsie said. She felt sorry for a member of the Newton North team who was left sitting alone.
Gubellini was happy. "Watching these kids grow in confidence over the year, it's kind of amazing," he said.
Follow Anne O'Connor on Twitter @a1oconnor.