USC robotics teams headed to state

Published 2:19 pm Monday, February 20, 2023

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Better late than never. Such was the case for the United South Central robotics team. Because in hosting a VEX regional tournament earlier this month, the last chance to qualify for the state competition this year, the high school team placed 12th, which was high enough to qualify for state.

“We did pretty well as far as the school program goes,” said Doug Sahr, head coach of the USC robotics team. “At this point in the season it can get really competitive. Team robots from all over the state have been tuning and tweaking designs and codes all season.”

And that meant teams were bringing their best to the event.

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And in the latest competition, USC’s team scored its highest.

“If I remember right from the leaderboard, they pretty much doubled the score they had from before,” he said. “They got their robot tuned in to perform better and to score more points, so that shot them up on that statewide leaderboard.”

According to Sahr, this year’s competition was frisbee golf “in a nutshell description,” though the technical term was Spin Up.

“There’s like a basket with chains and you shoot these little discs that are 4 inches wide, and you’re supposed to pick them up and throw them into a basket,” he said. “It’s not as simple as that in a competition because there’s usually other elements to help shake up the formula.”

The high school team started working on their robot over the summer, and he spent three days in August with the teams talking about the new game, reviewing the new rules and essentially planning, forming teams and building prototypes.

“Once the school year starts, it’s three days per week after school,” he said. “Sometimes they take their robots home on the weekend to make some tweaks and changes.”

Sahr’s middle school team, by comparison, qualified for the state competition after earning the Think Award at a Dec. 16th tournament in Mankato.

“You can win the tournament itself, and there’s a couple invites there,” he said. “But a robotics program involves other elements.”

Those elements include engineering notebook keeping, teamwork and interviewing well. And those are all awards that can qualify a team for the state competition.

By comparison, the Think Award was the judges’ nod towards design of the robot and keeping a good notebook.

Both the USC middle and high school teams have four students.

According to Sahr, the Feb. 11 tournament drew 47 teams and 15 different schools, including one from Omaha, Nebraska.

“They stayed over at Albert Lea, at the Best Western the night before and drove over and joined us on the Saturday tournament,” he said.

This year’s state competition is March 2 and 3 in St. Cloud.

“Our main goal is just to go up there, have fun with it,” he said. “We always want to be an asset to the matches. Every match you have, you have a new partner so you want to make sure you do a good job and help out.”

The icing on the cake for him would be qualifying for the world competition in Dallas.

“We’ve never quite gotten that far with it, so if we had an invite to worlds that would be pretty exciting for the school,” Sahr said.

Sahr himself started working with First Robotics when he previously taught in the Twin Cities.

This is his sixth season coaching VEX.

Hunter Bruckhoff, a senior at USC, joined robotics as an eighth grader.

“I took a gateway class and we built these Lego … robots to complete a task, and I was pretty good at that,” he said. “I enjoyed it. Mr. Sahr recommended it to me, and I joined robotics.”

Bruckhoff builds and drives, and also does a little coding.

He said he was relieved to learn the high school team qualified for state.

Noah Walton, a ninth grader on the middle school team, said he always had interest in robotics.

He described his role as doing most of the designing and programming, and was happy when he learned the middle school team qualified for state.

“We were surprised, yes,” he said. “We did qualify last year as well, so we were kind of happy to go two years in a row.”