After just falling short of state both the last two years, Northfield’s mock trial members felt like it would be a third. While the judges expounded on all the things Northfield’s opponent, Owatonna, had done so well on in the regional final, pessimism crept in.

“As [the judges] were building up the other team, it just made us think we were done,” junior captain Jenna Scheffert said. “Then they told us, and I looked to my teammate…and we were about ready to cry.”

For all the right reasons, the Raiders had to control their emotions as they got the official tally — Northfield 224, Owatonna 220 – and what it meant: the first trip to the mock trial state meet for Northfield since 2005.

“All these years I’ve been here we get so close, and this is finally the breakthrough,” Scheffert said. “This team we’ve been a part of is so close, and now we’re finally going. It was a moment like no other.”

Both the last two years Northfield has entered the regional finals as the No. 1 seed. Both years the Raiders have lost on a split ballot, where one judge rules in their favor and the other goes against them even further. In an academic competition where months of preparation go into the simulated court trial proceedings, it’s been a run of excellence that needed only the final exclamation of a state qualification.

“Northfield has consistently had one of the best teams in southern Minnesota,” said teacher-advisor Stephen Cade, who teaches the team alongside Rice County attorney Paul Beaumaster. “We’ve had a great team, and these guys continued the momentum from last year. We graduated some great people and brought a bunch of great people back.”

All those great people also happen to be young, with no one older than a junior competing on this year’s team.

“What pushed us through to this year was the past teams. Last year we had two great captains and worked really hard, but it was just the gathered experience that put us over the edge,” junior captain Nicholas Gonnerman said. “To be able to accomplish this — when there have been seniors before us that were so great but couldn’t break through — feels really great.”

Northfield will travel to compete on March 11 and 12 in Duluth, the site of this year’s civil proceedings surrounding the hypothetical case of a widow suing the shipping company over her husband’s death during the famous SS Edmund Fitzgerald sinking in Lake Superior.

“It’s a big payoff for the kids. It’s just a good way to end the season,” Cade said. “They feel like they’re already winners. Winning regions is a big step. This is really the gravy on top.”

Reach Sports Editor Jordan Osterman at 645-1111, or follow him on Twitter.com @NFNJordan.