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Nearly 1,500 compete in robotics tourney

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Nearly 1,500 high school students from five different states came to compete or cheer on their teams in the three-day robotics tournament. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 4
Robotics team members Max Utter (left) and Piper Sondreal watch the boards as the alliances are announced for the finals. The Greenbush/Middle River High School team was No. 1 going into the finals. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 4
Landon Kvien (from left), diesel mechanic and mentor Doug Hlucny and Max Utter put some finishing touches on the Greenbush/Middle River robotics team's "Fezzik" between rounds at the Great Northern Regional First Robotics competition Saturday in the Alerus Center. Going into the finals, the team was in the No. 1 spot. (Janelle Vonasek/Grand Forks Herald) 4 / 4

Action in the Alerus Center on Saturday looked like the pits of the Indianapolis 500 — fast, loud and furious — as young mechanics, engineers, entrepreneurs and future media moguls worked to grease the wheels, tighten bolts and ready the ratchets on their robots.

Wearing everything from purple unicorn hats to popcorn containers and kilts, nearly 1,500 students and 47 teams competed in Grand Forks' inaugural Great Northern Regional First Robotics competition.

The three-day event attracted a giant crowd to cheer on high school teams from five different states, including Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota.

Greenbush/Middle River teacher and event co-chair Mary Anderson explained the "First" in the national organization's name is an acronym meaning "for inspiration and recognition of science and technology."

"It's unlike anything else. Students gather around a robot like a campfire to create an environment of a small business," she said. "They do everything from fundraising, marketing, prototyping, building and strategy. They have fun and all become part of a team. Win or lose, they see the importance of making a difference for each other."

And her Gator Robotics team apparently was hitting it on cylinders Saturday as they secured the No. 1 spot going into the final alliance rounds.

"It's kind of like a big family," team member Max Utter said. "Once you're in robotics and you're part of the family, you're never going to leave."

Teammates Piper Sondreal, Isabella Brockhouse and Emily Tarala said that besides being in it to win it, they enjoy the friendships. Thirty-seven of the school's total 128 students are on the robotics team, and more than half are girls.

"It's not just about the robot. There's something for everybody. There's not one person who can't be in robotics," Sondreal said. "You don't have to be just school smart. You're smart at something, everyone is."

Some members engineer and build. Some strategize or scout for alliance partners. Others write programs to drive the robots. And still others might be responsible for safety or media relations.

"Any field you want to go into you can do in robotics to improve yourself for your future," Brockhouse said.

The teams compete in 87 different qualification matches to earn ranking points before captains eventually pick two teams for the alliance finals. Several other awards also are made.

The robots are judged on how well they can move cubes onto a scale or switch, how efficiently they can push cubes through a hole and how well they can climb and lift.

"The triple climb is our superpower," Brockhouse said.

It's also the reason the team named its robot Fezzik after Andre the Giant's character in the movie "The Princess Bride."

"He's like a beast," Sondreal said. "Robotics, that's what really brings our two communities together. Everyone loves it."