William Floyd mock trial team wins second straight state competition

(L-R) Umar Khan cross-examines Jonathan Gilbert, the witness,

(L-R) Umar Khan cross-examines Jonathan Gilbert, the witness, as fellow William Floyd Mock Trial team members Ezeliel Torres, Gabriel Stellato, Taylor-Marie Hausser, Numaira Khan, Vianna Iorio and Emma Van Nieumwenhuizen demonstrate a mock trail on May 28, 2104. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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The 13 members of William Floyd High School's mock trial team wore their traditional colors as they entered an Albany courtroom for the final round of New York State competition.

But not the school colors of green and white. The six boys were dressed for intellectual battle in black suits with red shirts and ties. The seven girls wore black skirts and red blouses.

"We wear those colors because red is considered a power color," explained Vincent Kappel, 17, a senior from Mastic and mock trial "attorney." Besides, he added, "It's frowned upon to wear your school colors to a trial."

The students' coordinated outfits, not to mention their skill in roles as lawyers and witnesses in a simulated civil trial, served them well. On May 20, for the second straight year, the William Floyd mock trial team, led by veteran coach William Hennessy, 69, of Wading River, emerged victorious as state champions -- triumphing over seven other teams.

"These kids were so bright, and they caught on so fast," said Hennessy, a retired Advanced Placement U.S. history and criminal justice teacher, who has coached the program to six state championships since 1980.

In the contest, the team defended the imaginary firm of Penn HydraGas and its CEO Mitchell Tomley, who were charged with illegally contaminating the drinking water of the fictitious Molivar, a Pennsylvania-New York border town. Judge Susan Phillips Read of the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, presided over the finals and was the ultimate arbiter.

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For the team, this year's achievement was more remarkable, Hennessy said, because of the need to recruit and train ninth- and 10th-graders after eight star seniors graduated last year. Kappel, the team captain, was the lone holdover.

Some Long Island high schools take pride in their Intel or robotics whiz kids. At William Floyd, it's the sharp-minded mock trial kids who bring home major trophies year after year. In between their studies, playing high school sports and attending Youth & Government meetings, the mock trial team members spent 10 or more hours a week practicing and competing.

For three hours on Saturday mornings, they met for additional coaching from William Floyd alumni who are graduates of law schools at Harvard University, the College of William and Mary and Hofstra University. Their practice courtroom is set up in the school's cavernous library, where the acoustics resemble those found at competition sites, Hennessy said.

"If you can be heard in this room, you can be heard anywhere," he joked. Of instructions to student competitors, he said, "We emphasize loud, slow and clear."

A genial, modest man, Hennessy was on the debate team while a student at Regis High School, a Jesuit institution in Manhattan. While never a "first-stringer," he said, he competed in tournaments and state championships. Years later, his background in debate drew him to mock trial competition.

At the beginning of each semester, new team members are selected in tryouts -- not only for their ability to think on their feet, but also for their "natural likability," Hennessy said.

Ezekiel Robert Torres, 14, of Shirley, takes honors and AP courses, is an outside linebacker on the school football team and plays the piano. Yet, because of the mock trial team's reputation, he said, "I didn't think that I was of the caliber to be on the team."

Hennessy snapped him up at the tryouts. "He said he loved my personality and my loud voice," Torres recalled.

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Both friendships and acting skills developed over the school year. A.G. Chancellor IV, 15, a ninth-grader from Mastic Beach, said, "It's more than just a team. We're good friends."

Vianna Iorio, 16, of Shirley, who plays witnesses, reveled in the opportunity to "be very emotional. I almost got to cry. That was the most fun."

Alumni adviser George DellaRatta, 27, was a member of the mock trial team the last time it won consecutive state championships in 2004 and 2005. He now is an attorney for New York City.

"I wish I had a secret formula to give you," he said, "but it really comes down to Mr. Hennessy's teaching. As successful as we've been over the past 15 years, he's been the only constant."

Hennessy's record has become so well-known that a state mock trial award is named after him.

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Richard Bader, chair of the law, youth and citizenship committee of the New York State Bar Association, which sponsors the mock trial competition, called William Floyd's mock trial record "a notable achievement."

"It says a lot about their coaching, but also about the hard work and dedication that the kids are willing to put into it," Bader said.

The district budgets $6,000 a year for the team, mostly to pay for bus transportation to competitions.

The team has not lost a match since 2012. It qualified for the state finals in April by capturing its fifth consecutive Suffolk County regional championship.

Umar Khan, 16, of Shirley, said the tension was highest in Albany while awaiting the judge's decision on the performance by Schenectady's Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School.

When William Floyd won, there was no fist-pumping or dancing, end-zone-style. They were, after all, bound by the decorum of the courtroom.

But, Kahn said, "a giant smirk passed across my face as I looked at Vinny [Kappel]. We both couldn't quite believe that this was actually happening."

They celebrated with what has become another team tradition: a chicken dinner at a Roy Rogers restaurant on the way home.

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