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Sunday, March 27, 2011

We Are the Champions is my team's soundtrack

I am back from the most epic regional competition in the history of our team. The Autodesk Oregon Regional ran Thursday through Saturday of this week. Team 956, with 9 students and 4 mentors [in a world of 30+ student teams] and a working budget of $600 [when many teams work on budgets of several $k] was one of the semi-finalists at competition, with our alliance ranking 4th out of of the 58 teams in attendance. One of our students was one of the two Dean's List finalists at our competition [the highest award given to an individual student in FIRST].  Our 8th-ranked alliance in the final rounds upset the 1st-ranked alliance, in two out of three intense matches.

In short, it has been an epic week all round and recapping it is a challenge. Things started off on Monday evening when I dyed my hair its competition-standard flaming red-orange [leading to nickname of Flaming Comet of Doom]. Tuesday evening myself, my dad, and two of our mentors rendezvoused at school to pack our three cars with the robot and all its accoutrements, for subsequent delivery to Portland. We had previously piled every single item in the hall outside of our shop: batteries, battery chargers, half a dozen large totes full of tools and spare parts, whiteboards, a sizable workbench, the robot, etc etc etc.
Wednesday we left for Portland amid a flurry of activity: in the morning my family went to Powell's Books [largest bookstore in the country, or something like that] and Ikea [Swedish house-goods warehouse]. At 5 that afternoon we rendezvoused with our mentor and loaded the carloads of stuff into the Autodesk pits [huge conference room in the bottom of Memorial Coliseum] in a swift targeted operation executed with military precision and FIRST-like enthusiasm.

From there we drove the 1.5 hours home, and picked up a team member who was going to spend the night at my house so we could give her a ride up to Portland on the morrow.

We were up bright and early [4:45 AM] on Thursday, and rendezvoused for carpooling [are you catching the trend here?] at 6. We arrived with time to spare in Portland, and distributed t-shirts and safty glasses with abandon.

Our robot was in three pieces, plus some odd aluminum that had to be machined, and we missed our first practice match because the robot was not finished yet. We passed inspection with flying colors. We had a tough time on the first day, with our untested autonomous mode giving me and our programming mentor a large amount of grief.

Nevertheless, by the end of Thursday we were pretty happy. We had Subways packed into the pits for us for dinner, and got back to the hotel where I rendezvoused with the rookie team we'd been mentoring all season.

The girls' room [hilarious and sleep-deprived] got to sleep around 1 that night. I for one did not sleep well. The light-rail car [or Max, or Metro] ran right by our hotel room about every 10 minutes. I was up bright and early Friday morning.

I and my beloved scout/Chairman's teammate ran across the street to grab a coffee, and thence we proceeded to the Coliseum.

Friday went AMAZINGLY. We won most of our matches, despite some very tough opponents, and got autonomous working. Lisa and I were over the MOON about that: we kept high-fiving each other at about ten-minute intervals all day, each time declaring 'High five! And another! And once more!'
By the end we had one of the best autonomous modes at the event, in the top 6 or 8 I would say. Autonomous is well-known for being difficult to program and I am still in awe that we got it working.

We were ranked 13 out of 58 by the end of the day. Our scouts came back to the hotel after dinner and started entering the data into the laptop, and making our pick list for Saturday morning. We had most of the team in my room talking strategy, and then the scouts [Charlene, Sarah and myself] holed up with the data. We let our driver, Michelle, get to sleep early [c. 1 AM] but we scouts hit it hard until 3:30 AM. I got about two hours of sleep that night. Fun times.

It is a well-known fact that Bethany never eats at robotics. To be fair, I did eat, just not in the daytime. I ate dinner, and then Friday night I ate yogurt and energy bars over the scouting sheets. Saturday I just powered through on adrenaline, it was amazing.

Saturday things went with a swing. We did pretty well in our last qualifying matches, and then it was on to alliance picks before lunch. My scouts and I had made a pretty comprehensive pick list, but while I was down on the floor waiting for selection to start I was told no electronics were allowed on the field: ie, no laptop which had all of our crucial data in it. I frantically scribbled down the key data.

A note here: despite all my years of dedicated scouting, we have never used scouting data for its original purpose of choosing the best alliance partner in the finals.

We were chosen by the 8th-ranked team [which meant we'd compete first against the top-ranked alliance]. I [after enthusedly accepting] immediately started comparing data with their team captain, and advised that we select one of my top-ranked teams to be our third alliance partner. They eagerly took the suggestion and there we were, a beautifully solid and definitely imposing alliance. This is the first year in my memory that we have been completely happy with our alliance partners. Individually we all had really strong records: together we caused a member of another top-ranked team to declare, 'I'm very afraid of you guys!' which absolutely thrilled the heck out of me ;)

During lunch we strategized intensively with our alliance partners. We then went up against the top-ranked alliance for best two out of three matches.

I have never been on the field during an event: I am usually rushing with scouting data from stands to pit.  However, for the finals I and Lisa our programming mentor were part of pit crew, because drive teams and robots just stay on the field, no rushing back to the pit for repairs. We were changing batteries, fixing slipped cables, and generally getting the most intense experience that FIRST has to offer.

Our alliance lost our first match against the top-ranked alliance by two points. OH THE SUSPENSE. Then we had a not-long-enough break while other elimination rounds took place, during which we fixed things and ran batteries the quarter-mile from the pits.
We won our next two matches against the top-ranked alliance [I will keep repeating that until everyone chants after me 'We beat the top-ranked alliance!']. I have never been so excited in my life, I think. We were jumping up and down and screaming and hugging and high-fiving and hand-shaking and yelling.
We upset the top-ranked team in 2006: this is the best year we've had since then. Wild enthusiasm.

We lost our next two matches, against the alliance which went on to win the event, but I was beyond thrilled. I went up in the stands and then down to the standing-room-only mosh pit [have you ever seen a few hundred teens in brightly-colored team t-shirts, with a sizable selection of mascots, dancing to the Chicken Dance? it is an inspiring sight]. The winning alliance included a rookie team, which I was rather  excited about.

There are so many hundreds of stories at an FRC competition, it would take all day to tell. I hear it's about to happen though: the new book about FIRST, The New Cool, came out this spring and apparently the makers of the documentary film Social Network bought the rights to it and were at some regionals this spring with notebooks, video cameras and enthusiasm for FIRST.

Here are some teams whose stories really made me happy this weekend:

Team 1432: this was the team who I think I wrote about in the fall, whose school kicked them out and took most of their funding. They rallied and participated in the regional, overcoming a tough start and being able to score several times. I was so excited to see them there [I remember being down front standing with a couple of their team members, and being so excited when their robot scored].

Team 753: they had a great showing at the Seattle regional, but were plagued with communication problems all day Thursday and Friday. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a robot which can score beautifully but which won't even move because of comm errors. I talked to their team captain on Saturday morning, who I've known all four years I've been in FIRST, and commiserated. They swapped their router for a new one, and did very well in their matches on Saturday. Cue enthused congratulations on my part :)  Despite their poor performance on Thursday and Friday [which made their ranking go down and could have prevented them from being selected] they were selected to play in the elimination rounds, which I was thrilled about.

Team 3472: a rookie team, the first Mexican team we've had at our regional. Their pit was right across from ours. They had a tough competition and didn't make it to the finals, but what enthusiasm! What excitement to be there! During the awards ceremony on Saturday they received the Rookie All-Star award, the highest award given to a rookie team as well as a free pass to Championships. The crowd cheered louder and longer for that award than for any other, I think. We were nowhere near as happy as the team was though, hehehe.

Team 3712: another rookie team who had a tough event, I mentored them by email during build season and popped into their pit throughout the event to help them out and encourage them. A great group of kids. They finally got their robot to drive, always a hurdle for first-year teams, and were so excited about that :)  Good times rendezvousing with their team in our hotel lobby. I adore swapping stories with other teams. Today their programmer sent me an email to say thanks and congrats, and said that they are excited and inspired for next year. That makes me so happy: another team has been started on the road to success in FIRST.

On Saturday, I received one of the two Dean's List Finalist awards presented at our regional. The Dean's List award is the only award for individual students in FIRST, for people who, like the Chairman's team, best create respect for science and technology and demonstrate technical excellence as well. While I don't know about the technical expertise bit, I certainly have the enthusiasm bit down pat :)   Even better than getting the award was seeing the teams cheering for me as I went down on the field: people I have known for four years, most of them, who I've emailed and worked with and commiserated with and high-fived. And not just the people I know, but every team there, who in some way I've supported whenever I talk about FIRST. This was the highest honor I could possibly have received, but honestly I was rather more excited about how well our team did, because it means our school will hear about how well we did, and the new students who were on the team will be excited to continue next year.

This started out as a year when we might not have been able to afford to do anything more than tinker with a robot and go to the local scrimmage, and ended as our best year ever. So much thanks is due to our mentors, who worked for us and with us all season; our sponsors, without whom we would not have just gotten back from Portland; and our students, who built a robot. Thank you: you've changed my world.