The 2011 National Championship of the Bellarmine men’s basketball team was widely heralded and celebrated—but that achievement was not unprecedented. Twelve years earlier, in Des Moines, Iowa, 13 mock trial team members used their brains, grit and courtroom skills to outscore 64 teams, including Stanford, Harvard and Duke, and bring the national championship trophy back to what was then Bellarmine College.
What’s more, Bellarmine’s second-string mock trial team finished fifth in the nation that year, a tremendous performance that has often been overlooked.
The mock case in 1999 was a product-liability action involving a fuel gauge manufacturer and a plane crash. In mock trial competition, as governed by American Mock Trial Association (AMTA) rules, two teams each composed of three witnesses and three attorneys contest a legal case using the same evidence and factual background. Judges evaluate the attorneys on their knowledge of the law and court procedure and witnesses on how knowledgeable and convincing they are in their roles. The anonymity of the opposing schools is strictly maintained.
“Bellarmine mock trial was a powerhouse in the late 1980s, ’90s and into the early 2000s,” said current head coach Thad Keal ’87, a member of Bellarmine’s first mock trial team. “A mock trial giant,” added Ryane Conroy ’00, a member of the championship team. Bellarmine teams had been national runners up in 1987, 1991, 1994 and 1998. Rhodes College from Memphis, Tenn., a four-time champion, had vanquished the Knights on two of those occasions.
Bellarmine’s team was fortunate to be coached by two future AMTA Hall-of-Famers, attorney Jim Wagoner ’72 and his wife, Ruth Wagoner ’71, along with Jason Cooper ’96. “At the time they were inducted in 2007,” the AMTA website says, “Ruth and Jim had coached for 22 years and made it to the national championship tournament on 21 occasions. They had eleven ‘top 10’ finishes, three more at the Silver nationals, four appearances in the national final round and a national championship in 1999.”
“With only mild kidding, Jim is one-half Bobby Knight and one-half Atticus Finch,” said Jason Butler ’99, another member of the winning team. “With no kidding at all, he is as good a man as you could possibly meet in life.” Conroy described Ruth Wagoner, who taught communications, as “the voice of reason and the details,” while Vanessa (Cox) Cantley ’99, who was on the championship team, said that Cooper “was a good mix of Ruth and Jim—he was also a good mediator of intra-team disputes.” Ruth observed, “At times, Jason Cooper was the only sane voice in the room … and he could make us laugh.”
The other members of the victorious “older team,” five of whom had been in the finals the year before, were William Armstrong ’00, Amanda (Bennett) Buffinton ’99 and Nathaniel Cadle ’99.
The national fifth-place “younger” team consisted of John Balenovich ’01, David Chamberlin ’01, Cheryl (Danner) Harrison ’99, Heather (Jackson) Hood ’00, Matt Rich ’00, Christi (Spurlock) Cole ’99 and Sarah (Wimsatt) Justice ’01/’04 MBA. “Ruth and Jim told us many times that the A team would never have made it to the national championship if they hadn’t had us constantly nipping at their heels,” Justice remarked. Ruth Wagoner added, “Opponents paid dearly for underestimating any member of these two teams.”
The season was not without high drama and unsettling moments. In a rare outcome at the Furman regional, the older team did not automatically qualify for the Gold national tourney, but the younger team did. The road trip back from Greenville, S.C., in the 15-passenger van was tense, as emotions flared about the next course of action. According to AMTA rules, the older team could have taken the younger team’s Gold bid, leaving the latter to qualify in the Silver national event. Ultimately, though, the students decided that the older team would earn its own bid to the Gold tournament by qualifying in the Silver. “The rationale was unimpeachable,” Matt Rich recalled: “If you can’t win Silver, you won’t win Gold.”
Despite the budget-breaking turn of events, the Wagoners made it happen. Jim Wagoner well remembered the resulting “three or four weeks of misery and a long drive” to St. Paul, Minn., site of the Silver tourney. “In round one at the Silver tournament, the older team met Princeton, and the trial was very close,” Ruth Wagoner said. “Had the team lost those ballots, they would not have been able to compete in Nationals.” However, Bellarmine went 8-0 in the Silver to secure their bid.
In the Nationals, the older team defeated South Carolina-Spartanburg, Furman, Texas, Stanford and Rhodes College, avenging their losses to Rhodes in the 1991 and 1994 finals. The younger team also headed into the last round undefeated, but according to team member John Balenovich, Bellarmine received a questionable pairing with a national power and split their final ballot to finish 7-1, taking fifth place in a tie-breaker.
Bellarmine earned many individual honors: All of the older team members were named All-Americans; Conroy, Cox and Hood won attorney awards; Armstrong and Cole earned top witness accolades; and all three coaches won special recognition.
Thad Keal, Bellarmine’s current coach, is assisted by Jim Wagoner and others. After some lean recent seasons, this year’s nine-member team competed well in a regional tourney that Bellarmine hosted at the Hall of Justice and qualified to participate in the Opening Round Championships in Ohio; however, they finished just short of a bid to the nationals.
“It meant the world to our team that President Susan Donovan
took the time to come to the courthouse early on Sunday morning to watch an entire trial,” Keal said. Referring to the ’99 team, Keal said, “We refer to their success frequently during our preparation for competition.” He also proudly displays the championship trophy during Bellarmine’s involvement fair each year.
“The 1999 team took care of business,” Jim Wagoner sagely concluded, “and is still considered one of the top five teams to compete in collegiate Mock Trial.”
By Harry Rothgerber ’69