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Underdogs impress at provincial robotics tournament

First-year Patrick Fogarty team finishes fifth at provincial robotics championship

Local students have made their mark on the provincial robotics scene.

They were a group of unknowns heading into the recent provincial championship in St. Catharines, but the students at Patrick Fogarty Catholic Secondary School made sure that won’t be the case next season.

“We turned a lot of heads and dropped a lot of jaws at that tournament. Nobody saw us coming,” said Mike Milliard, coach of the school’s robotics team, who mentors the students with Jeff Cole and Jason Janisse.

The Patrick Fogarty team, in its first year as a club, had a goal of finishing in the top 25. It finished fifth in the province — the first team in VEX Robotics competition history to qualify for provincials in its inaugural year. That success was a result of teamwork, Milliard said. He and the students acknowledged there were some arguments and disagreements while building the two robots, but when it came time to perform, “they gelled as a team,” the coach said.

“Everybody found a role on the team and performed exceptionally.”

The school’s “R-Bot” went 7-0 in the qualifying matches, putting it in first place out of a field of 65 teams. The “G-Bot” went 5-2.

The teams that made it to the quarter-finals had to pair up with other competitors to form alliances. With Fogarty in the top pole position, it had the opportunity form the strongest alliance, but other teams were able to choose whether to accept Fogarty’s offer. The local team was turned down four times, underestimated by the more experienced squads.

The students are confident that won’t happen next time.

“We won’t be getting turned down by team,” Milliard said. “They’ll be coming to us. We earned a lot of respect.”

An improperly installed battery in the robot being operated by Fogarty’s alliance team from St. Catharines cost them the match.

It was a highly competitive battle of the bots, but it wasn’t all business.

“It was more fun than anything,” said Andy Lentini, 15, one of 24 robotics team members at Fogarty. “We were a first-year team, so we were just doing what we’d practised.”

And practise they did. Prior to provincials, the team had won titles at the VEX Simcoe County In the Zone Scrimmage and the VEX Central Ontario VRC Tournament, and made it to the quarter-finals of the VEX Brampton Robotics VRC qualifying event.

Despite those experiences, it was still “a big learning curve” on the provincial stage, said J.J. Doleweerd, 14, who programmed the R-Bot and drove it during the Ontario championships.

The students went all in this season. Many of the team members dedicated more than 100 hours of extracurricular time to work on the robots. Knowing how close they came to the semifinals — which would have landed them a spot at the world championships in Louisville, Ky. — motivates the students to work even harder.

“I’m looking forward to having a better chance to make it to worlds,” said Julianne Pires, 15.

The support from the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board should help students come closer to realizing that dream.

“They’ve made a huge investment,” Milliard said, noting the board is providing kits to help with robotics programs at its schools.

There are 15 robotics teams in Simcoe County, and Milliard expects to see that number increase with the board’s additional investment.

It’s good news for students like Jessica Cuthbertson, 15.

“I want to become an engineer,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to learn this type of stuff. And it’s a lot of fun.”

They’ll have another great opportunity in March, when they attend the Train in Technology Expo at the Barrie Molson Centre. The robotics team will have a booth, with its robots on display. Industry reps will be on hand, too, to answer questions about careers in robotics and opportunities for scholarships.

“Really?” Lentini said with excitement when Milliard noted there are indeed scholarships for this type of career.

That excitement is encouraging to Milliard, who expects interest in his program to grow. Not that he’s surprised. He knew from the start it could only go up. In the program’s first year, he had to turn away some students after 24 signed up. Given the popularity, he had to change plans, from creating one robot to building two. That’s when he realized he would need more support, and he sought out sponsorship to help cover travel and equipment costs. The following organizations answered the call: Orillia Manufacturing Association, Hill's Home Building Centre in Beaverton, Community Development Corporation in Orillia, Orillia Power Corporation, Orillia and District Construction Association, Township of Oro-Medonte, County of Simcoe, the City of Orillia’s economic development office, and the U.S.-based Robot Education and Competition Foundation.

Other members of the Fogarty robotics club include Mabel Sam, Katie Doleweerd, Jesse Litrell, Sam Shard, Andrew Tower, Megan MacEachern, Elijay Pecho, Destiny Aitkin, Ryan Doleweerd, Nate Sternberg, Alex Lassaline, Logan Woodrow, Rodney Mitchell, Ayden Sedore, Scott Stein, Megan Warner, Logan Hill, Ethyn Dunn and Aiden Greatrix.

Nathan Taylor

About the Author: Nathan Taylor

Nathan Taylor is an experienced multimedia journalist and editor who covers Orillia and other parts of Simcoe County.
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