Robotics team takes first place win in state

Team reflects on season, win at state competition

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Teammates Mason Ownby ’21, Brendan Hall ’21 and Kevin Rife ’21 pose at state competition (phot courtesy of Blake Sauders).

Morgan Fry, Reporter

LT robotics made history on April 3. For the first time ever, an LT robotics team placed first at the Illinois VEX State Championship. Co-captains Brendan Hall ‘21 and Kevin Rife ‘21 led their team, the Baby Drivers, to victory. 

“We were super excited,” Rife said. “When you’re in Robotics Club, winning state is the goal, so it’s been a dream for a while now.” 

The competition took place in person at Illinois State University. The Baby Drivers were among the four LT teams that competed in the state competition. All teams qualified for state at regular season tournaments held virtually this year.  

“There are numerous achievements and accomplishments that I am proud of for all of our teams,” coach Blake Sauders said. “They did a great job looking out for themselves and their teammates to make sure everyone had a healthy and safe experience.” 

The challenge for the state championship remained the same as the other competitions throughout the season. The game, called “Change Up,” is played on a 12-by-12 square field. Two teams are paired up, forming an alliance to compete against another alliance. The object of the game is to score more points than the opposing alliance by having your robot place red or blue balls in a goal. The details of this year’s challenge were released at the VEX World Championship in April of 2020. This meant the Baby Drivers could start planning their robot over the summer. 

“The main thing we considered over the summer was how we were going to design our robot to be able to lift the balls into the top of the goal,” Rife said.

The Baby Drivers used a program called Fusion 360, which allowed them to assemble parts on the computer to see what the robot looked like before it was built, Rife said. The physical building of the robot did not take place until the fall, when the team was able to meet at LT in person. 

“When building or modifying our robot, looking at other teams and seeing what strategies work for them is really helpful,” Hall said. “We’ve also tried to implement designs that we thought were good from Youtube videos we’ve watched.” 

Teams typically include builders who construct the robot and coders who create the movements and actions. In addition to being captains, Hall takes on the added role of driver, while Rife is the recorder in the team’s notebook. 

“While some teams might ignore the notebook a little bit, we keep one of all the designs and progress we make throughout the season,” Hall said. “This can be beneficial in receiving awards when we submit it to the judges for scoring.”  

In the state championship, the Baby Drivers first had to compete in qualification matches that consisted of one round, Hall said. After those matches, the highest ranking team was given a chance to form an alliance with a team of their choice for the finals match. While the Baby Drivers were not the highest ranked team at the end of the qualification match, they were picked by the top seed. 

“It was really exciting when we got picked by the number one seed, because we knew they were the best team besides us,” Hall said. “We knew if we got paired with them, we would have a really good shot at winning.” 

While the Baby Drivers pulled through for their win in the end, the finals match was not going as smoothly as they had hoped, Rife said. The finals match was best out of three, and the Baby Drivers lost the first round. 

“When our teammate’s autonomous [robot] failed in the first match, we were getting really worried,” Hall said. “But then we realized the same thing was happening to other teams throughout the day, and we told ourselves that it was just a fluke.” 

Sure enough, the Baby Drivers were able to win the next two rounds with their teammate’s autonomous working perfectly, Hall said. In addition to being named VEX State Tournament Champions, the Baby Drivers were also awarded the Amaze Award, which is given to a team with “an amazing, well-rounded and top-performing robot,” according to the VEX Robotics description. 

“I think we had some unique factors on our robot that were different from any other team in the championship match, so that’s probably why we got the Amaze Award,” Hall said. 

Now the Baby Drivers are preparing for the VEX Robotics World Championship, which is scheduled to take place virtually from May 20 to 22, Rife said. They are currently in the process of rebuilding and designing their robot for the world competition. 

“We decided that if we’re really going to be competitive we need a different design,” Hall said. “We certainly aren’t looking to win because the competition is so strong, but we are confident that we will do fairly well.” 

Over 50 countries will compete at the Live Remote VEX World Championship. Qualifying for the championship is an honor within itself, Hall said.