Saint Joseph District: Phenomenal Growth in 48 Hours

Emotions were high as we left East Grand Rapids High School last Thursday night. We were headed to our first Robotics competition of 2018 in Saint Joseph, Mich.

We had been cruising along during the 45-day build season. We had even gotten creative with some advanced engineering for our elevator base — a lazy Susan apparatus that allowed us to rotate the elevator without having to rotate the robot. Things seemed to be going fairly well. Until about Day 39.

After countless hours of planning, designing, prototyping, and building our robot (which we appropriately named “Susan”), it became apparent that she was not going to make competition weight. So, during a middle-of-the-night Coaches’ pow-wow, we made the tough decision to cut weight by trimming our elevator. This meant that Susan would not be able to place cubes on the upper scale, and our Drive Team would not be able to complete one of the key competition tasks.

Frustrated, but not deterred, the team hustled to finalize every last thing before leaving for St. Joe. Even with an all-out effort to accommodate our new approach to the competition, we arrived with an overweight robot, unattached grabber arms, an unaffixed climber, and no working autonomous code. Let’s just say that expectations were low. Like this-would-be-our-worst-competition-ever low.

We spent Thursday night trying to piece together a functional bot. We swapped out the turret base plate from a full aluminum base to a machined-out plate to make weight. We attached the grabber arms. We affixed the climber. Still no autonomous, but we were close.

Friday started with a thud. During our first match, the autonomous carried us to the lower switch but went too far. The force of banging into the switch bumper dislodged our battery connection. We spent the next two minutes and 55 seconds doing nothing. By the third match, we were able to get the grabber arms working. We continued making little mechanical and electrical tweaks throughout the day, and we saw incremental improvement every match. Still, at the end of Day 1, we were 2-6 and in 34th place out of 40 teams. Not what anyone had in mind.

Our average score on Day 1: 258.

We mounted the climber Friday night, and went to bed hoping for the best on Saturday. And, wouldn’t you know it, something happened. It was like a switch went ON for our drive team overnight, and we won our first three matches Saturday, scoring an average of more than 400 points, earning 10 ranking points, and jumping up to 16th place. We became laser-focused on filling the nine-block vault and monopolizing the lower switch. We found a niche and a new strategy, and we exploited it to the hilt. That focused specialization made us a solid alliance pick: we could handle the vault and lower switch all by ourselves, leaving two taller bots to place and protect cubes on the upper scale.

Even though we lost our last match to finish 5-7, we did complete a climb, so it was an emotional victory nonetheless. We fell to 22nd place and hoped to be selected for an Alliance.

Our average score on Day 2 increased by more than 100 points to 382. We were trending in the right direction.

Thankfully, we were selected in second round by seventh alliance, with the 18th overall pick. As the seventh seed, not many gave us a chance against the second seed. But then we won the first competition, playing our best match of the day — placing a cube in the lower switch during autonomous, filling the 9-cube vault, and completing a climb. It was, as Coach Strodtbeck said, “one of the most exciting moments in the club’s history” given where we had started Thursday night. Then, we lost a close second match on just a few seconds of scale possession and malfunctioning climber. Unfortunately, we just ran out of gas in the third match, and we lost the quarterfinal 1-2.

Despite an early exit from the playoffs, the Coaches were ecstatic with how much improvement took place in just 48 hours. “We totally exceeded expectations,” said Coach Strodtbeck. Our team also won the Entrepreneurship Award for our Business Plan, scoring us an additional five points.

Even with all the challenges, no one ever got down. “It was a credit to the team for staying positive,” said Coach Dills.

“I thought the pit crew came together in a very stressful situation,” said Clara Luce ’18. “The robot didn’t turn on the first morning of the competition. Somehow, we figured it out by working together and supporting each other.”

In the spirit of “Never Stop Improving,” the coding team hit the practice field for 90 minutes right after the competition to hone our autonomous performance. We can now deliver a cube to either side of the lower switch, and we have a goal of delivering two cubes during autonomous at our upcoming matches.

“Our focus going forward will be on autonomous and the vault,” said Coach Dills. “Other teams can forget about the vault and let us handle it. It’s a model we’ve seen work in championships at other events: each robot becomes a specialist in a certain function on the field. It makes us a great Alliance pick.”

The team is excited to head to the West Michigan District next weekend. And, we go into next tournament knowing who are as a team, with an identity and a role. West Michigan is the competition we won last year, bringing home our first Blue Banner. Our fingers are crossed that we can make another good run and qualify for the State Championships.

We are striving to win a Spirit Award next weekend, so please come out and cheer on our team. The first 20 EGRHS students who come out to cheer and stop in the pits will receive a free EGR Robotics T-shirt. See you next Saturday!

— Jeff Couzens, Business Team mentor