It’s lonely at the top

The Warlocks Team 1507 FIRST Fingerlakes Regional Champs for 2009We’re tired. It’s pouring rain, and it’s a long walk to the parking lot from the building we just left, but we couldn’t be happier.

Eleven hours earlier, we had arrived, a bit late, but still in time to hear the National Anthems for the United States and Canada sung at opening ceremonies. It was the third and last day of the FIRST Robotics Fingerlakes Regional Robotics Competition at RIT in Rochester NY.

I had ridden there the previous two days in a school bus, getting up at 6:00 am to meet it. We left one night about 7:30 pm and felt good to get out early on Friday by 5… The extra hour or so of sleep on Saturday felt good, but it wasn’t enough.

It’s hard keeping up with these kids. I’m 55 and my mind says it wants to do the things they do, but my body is always vetoing that idea. My feet are sore, my back aches and my joints complain whenever I work in an awkward position. But I wouldn’t miss it. These kids keep me feeling a little younger than I might if I just stayed home and vegetated.

So what were we there for? We spent six weeks from early January until mid-March building a robot specifically to compete in a game played this weekend. We will play the same game again in two more weeks in Philadelphia, and with some luck and a lot of help, in Atlanta in April.

Two thousand high school teams across North America and the world, learned the details of this game and were given a common set of parts to build a robot at the same time, our kickoff. Before that, we had no idea what the game was. No clue what robot we would end up building. Two thousand teams solved the same problem and came up with two thousand solutions. Today, by winning this competition, we and our other two alliance teams, learned that not only were our solutions pretty good ones, but teamwork and cooperation can go farther than just a good idea can take you. You see, this game is not played alone, it’s played by three teams and their three robots against three other teams at a time.

The competition runs practice rounds Thursday, ranking rounds begin Friday and continue Saturday morning. By noon on Saturday, the teams are ranked according to their record and choose their alliances based on that. The ranking matches alliances are chosen at random, so the teams you play against in one match might be your partners later. We ended up undefeated, but with two ties, so it wasn’t totally smooth sailing, but ended up the top ranked team.

The teams we did select to be part of the #1 Alliance were a dream team. Team 188, Woburn Robotics from Toronto, were a team we regarded highly and have met before many times. They are a regular at the Fingerlakes Regional and we went to their home regional in Toronto last year. They were the first FIRST team in Canada! We could not have asked for a better partner.

Our third alliance member was Team 174, The Arctic Warriors from Liverpool NY, were just as good. I was surprised that they were still unchosen at the end of the alliance picking round, as they were a good team, a good robot and already had experienced one regional competition the weekend before in Cleveland.

It’s my seventh year as a FIRST Robotics team mentor. It’s only the fifth year this team has existed, we were part of another team before that and split into two teams. Our sister team, the team we were formed from, the Newfane Circuit Stompers were there too. They almost made it to the finals to play against us, but were eliminated at the semi-final level.

The teams we played against were super too. One of the premises of the FIRST program is a concept known as Gracious Professionalism. It can mean a lot of things, but basically means you can compete against each other, but still cooperate, and learn from each other. I remember thinking about the alliance we played in the final rounds – Team 340, Team 1511 and Team 316 – and thinking any of them were great teams and would have been honored to have any of them on our alliance as well. Their competition makes us better.

That story repeats over and over. The way things fell during the alliance choosing process, teams we would have loved to work with were already snapped up by other alliances. Our friends 378, our pit neighbors Team 1503, who we’ve gotten to know well from the Toronto regional and always end up next door in the pits due to the close numbers, were a strong team too. They’re neighbors geographically too, from Niagara Falls ONT. Team 1511, from Pittsfield, who hosted the pre-ship rally were another. They always have a great robot and they’re a great team too. So many others, I can’t mention them all. We’ve really gotten to know so many teams and to be honored in winning the regional championship among them is not only an honor, it’s humbling as well. To think our little team from Lockport can rank among so many great teams we’ve looked up to, is mind-boggling.

So, anyway, the losing teams pick up and close their pits while we are still playing the final rounds. We take everything we can anticipate needing with us onto the field area, because there isn’t eved time between matches to go back to the pits. It’s good practice for the nationals where the pits are in another building! Then, we win and barely have time to bring the robot back into the pits before the award ceremonies begin and they close the pits. All the packing up will have to wait.

After the awards are over, it seems like everyone else is leaving. We’re just beginning packing up, putting things away and taking some parts of the robot off for maintenance before Philadelphia. No sense hurrying now. Only us and a few other teams form the finals are left. Crated robots are sitting like monoliths until the logistics company hauls them away go to other regionals.

But it’s a time to savor as well. The people from the other teams that are left wander by to chat and offer congratulations. We talk about which regionals we might see each other at later and promise to hook up at the Nationals, if we make it.

Finally, we are all done. Our bus and most of the team has left a while ago. Only those who drove are left and the tear down crews are taking down the field. It’s like watching the roadies for a large touring rock show and they work fast. If we don’t get out soon, they’ll be done before us!

It’s been a long day, but it was worth it. After two months of hard work, it’s all paid off and our team came out victorious. In two weeks we’ll do it all over again.

Posted in News, Raves, Tech Stuff, WNY

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