MORRIS, Minn. - As a culmination of their most successful season to date, Morris Area's FIRST Robotics team, The Plaid Pillagers, are headed to the first ever state robotics competition in May.
Since January, the team has worked to design, build, test and re-test their robot, The Plaiding Mantis, in preparation for two regional competitions - coming within a single match of qualifying for the national tournament.
At their first regional in March, the Lake Superior Regional in Duluth, the team won seven of their nine qualification matches and were seeded fourth of eight teams going into the final rounds. Unfortunately, the team was eliminated during the quarterfinals in three close matches.
Between Duluth and their second regional last weekend, the Minnesota 10,000 Lakes Regional at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, the team worked to improve and fine-tune the mechanics of the robot, but maintained their overall strategy to "keep it simple."
The team also developed a more sophisticated scouting system to help build alliances later in the competition. Part of the strategy in FIRST Robotics is developing alliances with competing teams. During each round of this year's came, "Rebound Rumble," alliances of three robots compete against one another to toss as many basketballs as they can into four hoops during a two minute and 15 second match. At the end of each match, the robots will attempt to balance on bridges in the middle of the 27 by 54 foot field. Each basket and each balanced robot earns the alliance points.
After the first rounds of qualifying matches, the top eight teams are seeded and have the opportunity to pick teams that were not seeded to join their alliance to compete in the final rounds of the tournament. During the Duluth regional, the Pillagers scouting system proved to be ineffective.
"We didn't have a central person memorizing what these robots did, which ones were good, which ones were bad," explained Jacob Erickson, construction team leader.
"The first regional was so focused on the scouting system, no one was really paying attention to the robots," said Mitchell Finzel, who took charge of scouting for the second regional. The new strategy involved taking photos of each of the robots and developing a more concrete system that was useful for the team when they had the opportunity to choose their alliance at the end of the competition.
Unlike Duluth, where everything seemed to go right until the robot broke down during the quarterfinal match, the Twin Cities regional started out looking bleak. The team spent all of their first day working on making final changes to the robot, but nothing seemed to work. When they left the arena Thursday night, the Plaiding Mantis wasn't functional.
"It was very gloom and doom," said advisor Eric Buchanan. Fixes only began to emerge within the half-hour before the team's first qualifying match on Friday morning.
After unexpectedly winning seven of nine qualifying matches, the Pillagers were part of the fourth-seeded alliance. At this point, the extensive scouting and strategy sessions paid off, as the team was able to pick effective teams for their alliance - Inconceivable from Rochester Public Schools and Deus ex Machinea from Anoka High School.
"The night before, when we were talking about what teams we were thinking about picking, we were very convinced that we would have to do a triple-balance, which is the hardest objective in the game," said Finzel. "We've never seen anyone ever do it on the field. We were thinking we'd have to do that in desperation."
The team's strong alliance was easily able to win its quarterfinal bout in just two matches, winning 65-16 and 44-17 against the fifth-ranked alliance. The 65-point match also set a regional record for most points scored in a single match.
The Pillagers' most difficult competition came in the semifinals when they were pitted against the first-ranked alliance which included Nordic Storm, a team from Saint Peter High School that won the Duluth regional and was already set to go to the national FIRST Robotics competition in St. Louis.
"The number one alliance usually just paves their way to the finals," said Team Captain Kevin Viratyosin.
In the first match of the semifinals, the Pillagers' alliance won 74-70, breaking their recently-set high score. They were then able to break the record again, winning the second march 83-70 to move on to the finals, in the process setting the highest score recorded in Minnesota this year, said Field Coach Jackson Boever.
"There was a point right after we balanced the bridge, after we beat the first-seed alliance, where Mr. B., Jacob, and I [saw the other team] look up at the points, turn around, and then just look down with a wave of disappointment," said James Aaronson, mechanical team leader.
"We were just in disbelief," said Programming Team Leader Mickey Cotter, who also drove the Plaiding Mantis during the competition. "They were shocked that we had taken them out. ... It really felt like the finals, everyone was going crazy."
At that point, the entire team was convinced they would win the regional and be eligible to compete at the national tournament. However, a series of small mechanical problems throughout the day finally caught up with the team - chains slipped off, the mechanisms that helped the Plaiding Mantis climb the bridge twisted, the spacers between the wheels shifted and the transmission needed to be reattached. The robot was in trouble.
"Towards the end of the tournament, it's a big matter of attrition and who's robot is actually going to break," said Cotter.
The alliance called a six-minute time out to try and make repairs, but in the end the transmission was just barely attached. As the match started, the transmission slipped, leaving the Plaiding Mantis unable to drive much at all. Despite a "valiant" effort on defense to prevent the other team from scoring points, the Pillagers' alliance lost the second match of the final, coming in second overall at the regional.
"I think everyone's robot was failing, [the other team's] just failed a bit less," reflected Caleb Sanderson, electrical team leader. "Everything was just breaking down."
"For semifinals, everything went right, and then for the finals all the robots on our team started breaking down; it was just not good," said Finzel.
Despite just missing a chance to qualify for the national tournament, the team's successful season is not quite over. For the first time this year, the Minnesota State High School League will be hosting a FIRST Robotics state tournament in May. The team is ranked 14th in the state, so will compete against 27 other teams at state.
The team is also planning a community dinner to thank sponsors and show off the robot sometime after the state tournament. The Plaiding Mantis will also be on display during Prairie Pioneer Days and participate in demonstrations at the State Fair in August.