BEAR RIVER HIGH – By Ellen Cook – May 27, 2021
While the Bear River Valley is cheering on and congratulating (rightfully so) athletes from the local high school for top state finishes and spectacular plays, few know that another group of students has also been making a name for themselves in the engineering/technology/programming world.
They are the young men and women who are part of the Bear River Robotics team, a team that recently claimed the VEX Robotics Excellence Award at the World Championship 2021, sponsored by Northrop Grumman and REC Foundations.
Under the direction of Faculty Advisor Preston Richey, and assisted by Coach Jeff Jensen, Team Mom Jamie Woolley and Finance Chairman Angie Staheli, the group, which consists of five smaller teams from the high school and middle school, have been working toward this world event for months. Each team was assigned to design, build and program its own robot. Those robots were under construction last summer and the teams competed October through February. The goal was to win enough competitions or earn Excellence awards during that time to quality for the State tournament. All five teams made that goal.
The team, as a whole, was identified by a single number, 98548, with each individual team being assigned a letter, A-F. The A Team includes Peter Jensen, Jakob Nessen, Travis McMinn, Tanner Lewis and Corbin Borg. This team won the VEX Robotics Utah State High School Championship Tournament and qualified for World. Team C, a group from Bear River Middle School consisting of Caleb Carlson, David Roberts and Jace Bingham, also won the State Middle School Championship and the State Excellence award.
Team 98548D, an all-girl team of Eliza Marble, Julianne Hayden, Ruth Woods and Lindsey Potter, was new to the competition, but entered State with high hopes. Team E, Porter Woolley and Wyatt Staheli, garnered the Skills Champion trophy at the State tournament. However, both D and E teams did not move on to the World competition.
The final team, 98546F, with team members Ryan Pace, Braxley Hale, Nathan Kay and Reed Bourgeous, won the Design Award at the State High School tourney, qualifying them for World.
Story continues below...
With three team advancing, more preparation and much practicing was required. The World Competition took place in a live remote setting beginning May 17.
The remote competition was something new this year and required a little change in strategy and a lot of adaptation, according to Richey, who is also a Bear River High science teacher. He compared the competition to a 2-on-2 basketball game, Tic-Tac-Toe and Rock, Paper, Scissors all rolled into one. Each match is played on an 12x12 foot grid with each bout lasting just one minute and 45 seconds. Robots must put their colored balls into a basket, get three in a row and block the other teams while doing so.
“With this year being live remote, there was no way to play defense, so it was all strategy and offense,” Richey said. “We were watching three other teams compete simultaneously in different parts of the world. The drive team had to scout out the other team ahead of time, then communicate with each other or change plans to outthink the other team. It is all happening very fast, and play has to be very quick.”
The Bear River teams were amongst teams from 35 countries and 49 states battling it out, remotely and robotically. Richey said last year’s World competition was cancelled due to Covid-19, and many schools were hesitant about entering this year, so the numbers were down. Even so, there were close to 12,000 middle school and high school teams taking part.
A Team was eliminated in the playoff rounds with a score of 6-2-0. The C Team from the middle school, also saw defeat in the playoff rounds, bowing out with a 5-3-0 finish.
Team 98548-F, however, made it all the way to the semifinals, and a final score of 7-1-0, a record accomplishment for a Bear River team. But the accolades were just beginning.
VEX Robotics presents its highest award, the Excellence Award, to the team that does much more that builds a quality robot and emerges victorious from robotic battles. The qualifying team must also put together a design notebook and then undergo a rigorous interview to even be considered.
This year only 18 teams were brought in for interviews and only one from each of the eight divisions was recognized as the top Excellence team in the world. Bear River’s team earned that coveted recognition.
Of the win, Pace said, “We were super excited. We all knew we had worked hard and done well but none of us expected the Excellence Award,” he said. “As soon as our team’s name showed up on the World’s award screen, the entire room exploded into cheering. It was cool to see that all our hard work and late nights had paid off in the end.”
Bourgeous also added, “It is surreal to win such a big award at a world tournament and be able to accomplish something outside of Bear River High School and Utah.”
Coach Richey agreed. “We feel pretty good that we could go there against some tough international teams and hold our own. Our goal in any competition is to prepare to win the Excellence Award. It embodies all the reasons we do VEX Robotics. They did well with winning.”
He said some credit goes to the Box Elder School District for allowing the team members to find a way to compete under some trying conditions this past year when others across the country and around the world were keeping students from even meeting.
“Their attitude was, ‘Let’s figure this out so we don’t deprive the kids of these important activities,’ Richey noted, adding how much he and his teams appreciate that effort.
He is already looking forward to next year’s World Championship as the Excellence winning team has already clinched a spot in the final competition because of their award win. He also hopes to take more teams with them.
“It will be a different game and it will be different kids. But we will start, and we will compete at State and go on to World if we can.”
Next year’s team will certainly have some big robotic shoes to fill!