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MSA, East Ridge take FIRST

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It was seven years ago that the East Ridge High School's and Math and Science Academy's FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics teams joined forces — East Ridge had the space and MSA had the experience.

"One of the ethos in FIRST is this idea 'coopertition' and nothing exemplifies that more than two teams competing against each other, but using the same shop," East Ridge lead mentor Doug Jensen said. "They make us better, we make them better."

You might say it's been seven years in the making, but on April 9 both teams — the East Ridge Robotic Ominous Raptors (ERRORs), Team 3130, and the MSA Fighting Calculators, Team 2175 — partnered together on the winning alliance at the North Star Regional Championship, which was held at Mariucci Arena at the University of Minnesota.

"We finally had our miracle event happen," Jensen said. "We've been building together for seven years and we've never had this opportunity."

MSA, East Ridge and the other member of their three-team alliance, Eastview High School, have earned a spot at the FIRST Robotics World Championship to be held April 27-30 in St. Louis.

"The world championship is a very happy place to be," Woodbury resident and robotics mom, Patty Minehart said. "It's a little bit like Disneyland for engineers."

The final ranking for the two teams was MSA in first and East Ridge in second.

"The ERRORs were no question the best team, I don't know if there was a technicality in the scoring system, but we ended up in first and they were second," said Will Preska, the former lead mentor for the team. "It was kind of this game of leapfrog the whole time."

East Ridge competed in the world championships in 2015, as well. MSA went in 2013 and 2014.

Teams from Woodbury High School (Royal T-Wrecks — Team 3206) and Park High School (Data Bits — Team 3883) also competed at the North Star Regional. Park advanced to the quarterfinals and WHS finished 22 out of 60 teams.

Conquering the 'Stronghold'

The FIRST Robotics Competition tasks teams with building a robot within six weeks that can perform a number of different tasks.

This year's competition is called "Stronghold."

In Stronghold, two alliances of three teams are on a quest to breach their opponents' fortifications, weaken their tower with boulders, and capture the opposing tower.

Robots score points by breaching opponents' defenses and scoring boulders through goals in the opposing tower.

During the final 20 seconds of the quest, robots may surround and scale the opposing tower to capture it.

"If you think of the olden days when you would drag your siege engines up, go across all these defenses — that's what it's all about," Jensen said. "It's very interesting because there's a lot of different things all happening at the same time."

After receiving the challenge, both East Ridge and MSA spent considerable time strategizing and figuring out how to program their robots.

Luckily the teams had each other to turn to for help.

In fact, all four of the South Washington County teams — East Ridge, MSA, WHS and Park — shared a workspace, an old police garage in Cottage Grove that is no longer in use.

District 833 signed a lease for the space.

"We have this arrangement that is so cool," Preska said. "We have teams in the same shop working together; normally they're like silos, everyone is in their own school doing their own thing."

But don't expect any of the robots to be the same though.

"In the same shop with the same challenge they come up with very different solutions," Minehart said. "But they also know each other's robots really well because they watched them go together."

It takes two

Going into the regional tournament, MSA and East Ridge went in with different strengths.

"We could do the hard things," Jensen said, "which complimented what MSA could do because they can do the defenses like nothing."

"We were a great alliance together," Preska said.

Not only did MSA's and East Ridge's robots complement each other, their teams complemented each other.

Especially East Ridge's team captain Cooper, a senior, and MSA's drive captain Walter, a freshman — Minehart's two sons.

"It's so weird being on the same alliance because normally you don't even know their names," Cooper said. "You look over and this guy's driving and you know them and you live with them, so it's nice because you trust that you know what call he's going to make.

"We always joke about being on the same alliance because our robots work so well together and now it has actually happened."

The regional tournament wasn't all smooth sailing though since at one point East Ridge's robot stopped working.

"We turned into a brick and our robot didn't completely run for most of the match," Jensen said. "(MSA) had to pick up the slack for most of the match."

The regional tournament definitely was not smooth sailing for Minehart either who not only had to run back and forth between the various teams, but also had to repeatedly switch shirts from the ERRORs to the Fighting Calculators and back again.

"I wore two shirts," she said, "and fortunately I never made the fatal mistake of taking off the bottom one."

The regional tournament was nerve racking for Minehart because there was the chance that one of her sons would move on while the other did not.

"It could have been a very difficult day," she said. "But, it couldn't have worked out better for our family."

Both teams are excited for the world championships next week, but the odds of the two teams repeating their winning alliance are slim.

"We're going down as individuals," Preska said. "So, it will be a big free for all."

And of course, Minehart will be cheering on both teams from the sidelines.

"It's very likely that I'll be wearing my running shoes," she said. "I might need a bike."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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