Duke’s mock trial team became national champions for the first time Sunday.

A championship team comprised of eight undergraduates won the American Mock Trial Association’s 28th Annual National Championship Tournament, held at Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. Of the 655 participating college mock trial teams from across the nation, 48 advanced to the national tournament. Duke faced Rutgers University in the final round.

“We’ve always been a well-respected national program, but now we are truly an elite program,” said junior Will Hawkins, a member of the championship team.

Senior Franklin Sacha, president of Duke Mock Trial and a member of the winning team, said he was incredibly pleased with the team’s performance, especially in comparison with recent years.

The program did not qualify for the tournament last year, and although two teams went the previous year, neither was able to reach the top 10.

“This year is just far and away better than anything we’ve ever done,” Sacha said.

Alex Bluebond, a second-year law student and coach of the championship team, said the team defied expectations going into the tournament.

“I don’t think anyone predicted us to win this,” Bluebond said. “We knew we had it in us, but we were by far not the favorite.”

Duke’s championship team finished the tournament with a 7-1 ballot record after four rounds, breaking what the program has deemed the “Duke curse,” a failure to earn more than four ballots, Sacha said.

“The goal going in for me was beating the [Duke curse],” Hawkins said. “Then the wins started piling up, and it became more and more realistic that we’d win the whole thing.... Our expectations definitely evolved. Everyone was getting more and more excited every round.”

Sacha and Hawkins were joined on the championship team by seniors Ben Dean, Michael D’Ippolito and Jennifer Lin; juniors Luke Shuffield and Heather White and freshman Marquese Robinson.

Hawkins noted that the team members’ confidence in each other was key to their success.

“This year’s team was excellent because you could trust everyone to get their job done,” he said. “Whenever someone would go up and do their part in trial, you trusted them.... That showed in how well we did.”

This year’s case, State of Midlands v. Danny Dawson, involved a man being charged for driving under the influence and murder after crashing his vehicle and killing a passenger, Sacha said. The case was written by the AMTA for the competition.

Hawkins noted that the case was more emotional than in past years because it involved a situation that many college students could relate to.

“[This case] hits closer to home.... Every year or so you hear about something horrible happening to a Duke kid, something involving drinking,” he said.

First-year law student Erika Hyde, a coach for Duke’s mock trial team, has worked with the team throughout the year, though she did not attend the tournament. She said the team shows dedication to the program both during and between scheduled practices.

“They practice on their own, [and] they bounce around ideas with each other via email,” Hyde said. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie. They do well not just because they’re incredibly talented, but because they genuinely like being around each other.”

Hawkins said he expects the team to be invited to some of the country’s elite tournaments next year as a result of this year’s success.

“My excitement about next year is the opportunity for more members of the program to go to the best tournaments in the country,” he said.

He added that he was eager to take younger members of the program to tournaments in New York, Los Angeles and Miami to continue the momentum and enthusiasm from this year.

Sacha said he has high hopes for the program’s continued success.

“We have four seniors graduating, but we have a lot of talent,” Sacha said. “[We need to] keep building on this success—make sure it’s not a one time thing—and not get complacent.”