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As Dillard advances to the mock trial championship, it's a season of firsts for this small HBCU

Dillard University's mock trial competes during the University of Alabama Crimson Classic Invitational on Jan. 17, 2021.
Sabree Hill
Dillard University
Dillard University students DeAndre Bell II, Taylor Ponds, Renee' Simien and Amaya Ronczyk compete at the University of Alabama Crimson Classic Invitational on Jan. 17, 2021.

LaJeanne Shelton didn’t have high expectations heading into her final mock trial season.

After three years of losses, the Dillard University senior didn’t expect to make it past the first round of the national collegiate championship.

“We were putting in the work, and I knew it was possible, but you know, you don’t want to get your hopes up,” she said.

But then the unexpected happened. Not only did Dillard’s unranked team advance — they finished with the best record of the day: seven wins, one tie and zero losses.

Now Dillard is one of 48 teams set to compete in the American Mock Trial Association’s National Championship Tournament this weekend in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. More than 700 schools competed this season.

This is the first time the university has made it to the final round of the competition, and there are some other important firsts too.

It’s the first year a team from Louisiana has earned a bid in the championship since 2003 and the first time more than one historically Black college or university will be represented since Dillard, New Orleans’ smallest HBCU, will be joined by Washington D.C.'s Howard University.

“We are a team from a very small, under-resourced institution competing in a space that favors those with privilege and resources,” Dillard coach Adria Kimbrough said.

Most of the students on the team this year are relatively new to the competitive world of mock trial. The team is composed primarily of underclassmen, and just two of its 15 members did mock trial in high school.

Kimbrough, who helped start the team six years ago, said despite the team’s lack of experience, she has a good feeling about this season.

“If we're ever going to make it, this is our best shot,” she said. “We have, in the history of this team, the best assembly of talent, skill and commitment that we've ever had.”

Shelton said what the team initially lacked in technical knowledge, they made up for in charisma. Now that they know how to follow court procedure, read cases and synthesize evidence, they've become a powerhouse.

“I think a lot of our team members have a lot of natural abilities that help play into the sport of mock trial,” she said. “We have an innate ability to advocate, and I think that’s what makes our team a great team.”

Dillard University senior LaJeanne Shelton during the University of Alabama Crimson Classic Invitational on Jan. 17, 2021.
Sabree Hill
Dillard University
Dillard University senior LaJeanne Shelton during the University of Alabama Crimson Classic Invitational on Jan. 17, 2021.

Despite a successful season, the team has faced a number of obstacles, including Hurricane Ida, which displaced students and forced the team to miss several tournaments.

Kimbrough said the team has other forces working against them as well. Most of the students receive need-based financial aid and balance mock trial with jobs and full-time course loads.

Because Dillard was unranked, they faced an uphill battle going into the championship. During the qualifying round, they were seeded second to last, which meant they had to face the highest-ranked teams first.

Kimbrough said she deliberately hid the competition structure from the team because she didn’t want them to psych themselves out.

“What starts to happen is you internalize those rankings, and you start to think that somehow means these teams are better, and they’re not,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability to go in and be competitive.”

Kimbrough told the team to perform, and they did. They swept their rounds and by the end, Shelton said it felt like everyone at the competition was looking at them.

“They didn’t know who we were when we got here. But they knew who we were when we left,” Shelton said, repeating a comment made by one of the team’s other coaches, Judge Kern Reese.

Kimbrough said whether they win or lose, the team has already created a legacy for itself, the state and historically Black colleges and universities.

She said the success of Dillard’s mock trial team also sends the message that its members can one day be successful lawyers and win real cases.

Shelton, who is majoring in psychology, not pre-law, said her experience with mock trial has led her to pursue a career in law. She plans to attend UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco this fall.

The championship starts Friday and runs through Sunday. Even before it starts, Shelton said she’s already thinking about what this means for Dillard beyond this weekend.

“This is going to be my first and last time, but it isn’t going to be Dillard’s last time.”

This story was updated at 12:15 p.m., April 8, 2022 to correct a misstatement.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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