By Walter Villa, Special to STU
Perhaps a fib or two.
As a kid, Valentina Grizales watched her two younger siblings occasionally get in trouble with their parents. Grizales would always come to the aid of her brother, Sebastian Arenas, and her sister, Sofia Arenas.
“I have a fiery personality,” Grizales said. “I’m also justice-minded, especially when I see something wrong.
“My parents would say, ‘You should become a lawyer. You’re always defending them.’”
Well, Mom and Dad, that is exactly what is happening.
Grizales, a 24-year-old student at St. Thomas University’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, won “Best Advocate” earlier this month at the prestigious Florida Bar Chester Bedell Mock Trial Competition in Orlando.
Grizales – along with fellow students Vanessa Guiracoche, Michael Rizo and Alyssa Levy, led STU to the team victory.
“I was shocked to be named ‘Best Advocate’,” said Grizales, a Miami native of Colombian ancestry who wants to become a criminal defense attorney.
“But I was happy as well.”
STU knocked off bigger schools such as the University of Miami and the University of Florida, which had been ranked No. 1. STU defeated Stetson in the finals of what is considered the state championship for mock-trial competitions.
This is the third time in the event’s 40-year history that STU has won the top spot.
However, it is the second straight year STU has earned the championship. And it is also the first championship since Tarlika Nunez-Navarro became the Dean of STU’s College of Law.
“This was an incredible achievement by our advocates, members and coaches,” said Dean Nunez-Navarro, who was an STU trial-team advocate back in her days as a student. “Their hard work and commitment have made us proud.”
Grizales, Guiracoche, and Rizo were also part of STU’s 2023 championship team, with Levy being the only newcomer.
“Every competition has pressure, but this was at another level because of the expectations on us,” Rizo said. “You got the vibe that the other teams knew who we were. I’m sure they saw our pictures on the website (as the defending champions).”
When asked what has made his squad victorious the past two years, Rizo gave credit to Houson Lafrance, the faculty advisor for STU’s trial team.
Rizo also saluted the other coaches: Jeff James, Katerine Lopez-Espinal, Melissa Respeto and Gabriela Matos.
All the coaches, including Lafrance, are practicing attorneys who take time from their busy schedules to work with these talented STU students.
“(Lafrance) is the head of the snake,” said Rizo, a 26-year-old native of Hialeah. “Since he took over (in August of 2018), he and the other coaches have put in the work to push the organization forward and make sure we hold each other accountable.
“We’re a small school, but we have the passion of the coaches and the passion of the students. We’re the underdogs, but we have the will to put in long hours for weeks on end.”
Lafrance, whose motto is “Excellence Demands Consistency,” said STU will go for a “three-peat” next year.
“We have something special going on at STU,” Lafrance said. “You have to have coaches who love it and are committed to doing right by our students, and we have that.
“Our coaches are committed to seeing our students grow. It’s not uncommon for our coaches to become mentors of their students throughout their careers.”
Lafrance said his students had, collectively, a great perspective on the competition.
“It would’ve been easy for Valentina, Vanessa and Michael to rest on their laurels as reigning champions,” Lafrance said. “Instead, they pushed the standard forward, and Alyssa is super talented. You couldn’t tell she was a new advocate.”
Levy, a 24-year-old Miami native of Cuban ancestry, said she had to battle her emotions.
“At first, you have that ‘impostor syndrome’,” Levy said. “You feel like everyone else knows what they are doing in terms of handling evidence and objections. You feel like you don’t belong or that you’re not good enough to meet the standard.”
Levy overcame her doubts by working hard. She and her teammates worked six days a week for 8-to-12 hours per night.
This went on for six weeks, and, as time went on, Levy gained confidence.
“Even on our ‘day off,’ I practiced objections, seeing where I could improve,” Levy said. “I realized this was something I was meant to do and something that I’m going to be great at.”
Levy said she was surprised she was not more anxious during the competition.
“There was no time to be nervous,” she said. “Once the judge walks in to start the round, your adrenaline guides you through.
“When we won, I was in shock. Not that I thought we weren’t capable. But it was just that all our hard work came to fruition in that one moment.
“My first phone call was to my mom (Terry Levy), and, within five minutes, I had 50 text messages.”
Guiracoche, who at age 32 is the oldest of STU’s championship quartet, has a fascinating personal story.
Born in Venezuela and raised in Miami since the age of three, Guiracoche earned her Bachelor’s degree from FIU before deciding to take time off to join the work force.
Set to graduate in May, Guiracoche is laser focused on her career, and she ultimately wants to specialize in intellectual-property law, working on trademarks, patents and copyright issues.
The focus was evident in Orlando as Guiracoche helped her team keep the trophy on STU’s campus.