MARS/WARS team ready for nationals

Adam Larck
The MARS/WARS team poses for a photo at the regional competition in Milwaukee.

The first year of the Metamora/Washington Area Robotics FIRST team has been successful already.

After starting the program this year, both Joe Bachman and Julie Johnson already considered the program a success before the Milwaukee Regional had started.

“Joe and I both felt like, before we even went up there that our season had been a success for a rookie team,” Johnson said. “The kids had built a robot. It did everything that it needed to do.”

However, neither expected to be preparing the team for a trip to the championship after winning the Rookie All-Star Award by being the highest ranking rookie team at the regional.

“We had enough success that we won the highest rookie seed award, which they’re really excited about,” Bachman said. “That’s what is coupled with the automatic bid to the championship in St. Louis.”

The championship, which takes place April 26-28 at St. Louis, will let the MARS/WARS team see plenty of new competition, as well as test their robot at the national level.

At the regional

Before the team left for the regional, Johnson said they divided the team up to cover various areas at the competition.

“Before we left, we tried to divvy up the kids into different jobs,” she said. “We had some kids that were in the cheering section to support our team and other local teams that were there. We had some in charge of scouting other teams. We had some kids that were serving as pit ambassadors at the pit so that, as judges and other teams came by they could answer questions about our robot and our team.”

There were also students trying to repair the robot between rounds.

“It was kind of a full-time job keeping track of where everyone was,” Johnson said.

The competition, called Rebound Rumble, had teams trying to score baskets in one of four hoops with different heights before trying to balance on bridges with other robots during the last 30 seconds of the match.

Connor Widder, a sophomore at Washington High School and the electrical team lead, said the experience was “a lot of fun” and “a good learning experience on how the whole operation runs.”

“It was a lot of fun putting the robot on the field,” he said. “I was an inbounder, so I’d throw the balls in.”

While some team members helped with the robot and in the competition, other team members helped out more behind-the-scenes.

Lisa Gutgesell, a sophomore at Metamora Township High School, is part of both the mechanical and marketing team.

At the regional, she spent most of her time trying to get the team name out there.

“We traded buttons with other teams so they would know our number,” she said. “We also got posters and trading cards with robots on them.”

After finishing the qualifying round ranked ninth out of 48 teams, the team was then paired with two other teams for the elimination round.

Bachman said that only Tremont finished higher than Metamora in the area. Tremont finished first overall.

It was after the elimination round when the team found out they received the Rookie All-Star Award and would be going to the championship.

“The tension before the announcement of the All-Star Rookie award throughout our team was incredible and when they announced our team as the winner, there was a roar of emotion from our half of the arena supported by several other Peoria area teams cheering us on,” team mentor John Gardner said. “The students had spent so much time over the last couple months working to make this whole experience a success; it was great to see them rewarded in this way and the fact that this award grants them an invitation to the national championship.”

Looking toward the championship

After the regional came to an end, the robot was boxed up and shipped to St. Louis to wait for the team.

However, even though the team will not see it until April 26, they are already making plans of what to fix when they get down there.

“I think one of the biggest things that we need to work on is the ideal sensing of when we’re lining up to shoot the hoops,” junior Jimmy Beaver said. “We’re only allowed to carry three balls at one point, so when you’re using the first two to line up you’re only making a shot. You’d rather see all three go in the first time.”

Widder agreed and said the team is currently figuring out how to move the cameras to the front of the shooter to aim better.

On the programming side, freshman Jenna Gardner said that, while the program for the robot ran smoothly, they may try and tweak one thing.

“We might try to tweak the hybrid mode, which that’s the beginning 15 seconds, to see if we can be more successful within that,” she said. “Besides that, I think we have a very good program and a very good robot.”

However, the robot is not the only thing the team is working on before the championships. It is also trying to find better ways to scout and market as well.

“During our experience at the Milwaukee competition, we saw the need to improve our scouting process,” team mentor Brent Widder said. “Several students and mentors have been working on creating a more efficient process to gather and evaluate the performance of other teams for the World Championship matches. In St. Louis, there will be four arenas not just one, like in Milwaukee, so a smoother and faster method will be required to effectively scout other teams.”

Widder committed to helping Bachman with the team to start a successful FIRST program on the east side of the river.

John Gardner, the other mentor, agreed that scouting needs a bit more work.

“One aspect I want to help the students work through is how to better collect and process information on other team robots and then engage those other teams before a match with a strategy that complements the strengths of each robot,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gutgesell saw something they could do on the marketing side.

“We’re definitely going to add more spirit-wear and make our team more out there,” she said.

The team and mentors are not just looking forward to seeing the robot again, though.

I’m excited to see the team’s passion to compete in the World Championship.

 Brent Widder said. “Out of all 2,343 active high school teams, only about 300 teams have been invited to the World Championship, which in itself is an honor to represent Metamora and Washington high schools.”

While the team is excited to go and see what awaits them at the next level, even Johnson admits to being unsure of what awaits them.

“I don’t think we have any idea of what to expect when we get there, because the competition is definitely going up a couple of notches,” she said.

Coming back next year

Even though the competition is not done this year, the students all agree: they are ready for more next year.

“It was a good experience and I’d like another year of it,” Gutgesell said.

One of the interesting things about the FIRST competition is that students also are not set into what group they will be placed into each year. They can try different groups out to get more experience.

“Honestly, to me it doesn’t matter where they put me,” Beaver said. “Just being helpful is the biggest thing for me.”

While Jenna Gardner would like to stay with programming, she also wants to try new options in the program as well.

Meanwhile, Connor Widder wants to either stay with the electrical team or try his hand at programming.

“I really encourage people who are interested in engineering or sciences that this is a really, really good opportunity to learn about those fields and it’s really fun too,” he said.