Expectations were lofty this year for Clovis North High School's robotics team after it earned 2009 rookie honors in the Northern California Regional FIRST Robotics Competition.
But after a day of technical problems described as voltage issues, the team was 38th out of 38 teams during the event in Davis sponsored by FIRST -- For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology -- earlier this month. FIRST was founded by inventors Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers to inspire students in engineering and technology.
The competition was being waged in a game similar to soccer, using robots as players. The 116-pound Clovis North robot, JUGRNAT, was not scoring goals and consequently the team was not earning points.
But competing teams are encouraged to forge alliances, and Clovis North's team was being scouted by other schools.
"One of their girls noticed we were pushing robots around and playing good defense and no robots were pushing us," said Tony Frates, Clovis North's coach. "She told her team that when we were operating that's what we're capable of."
The top teams select two partners and after Leland High School of San Jose joined forces with Valley Christian, another San Jose school, they chose Clovis North for its defensive capabilities.
"Even though we are all competing ... we get the best from each robot to form the strongest alliance," said Ashley Nola, a Clovis North sophomore.
By the end of the three-day competition, their alliance had finished first.
The win made Clovis North eligible for the national championships in Atlanta, which concluded this weekend, but there was no money in the club's budget for the cross-country trip.
Clovis North team members, who are underclassmen, are not disheartened. They remain eligible for next year's championships in St. Louis and already are raising funds.
A robotics team runs like a small company with programmers, public relations, mechanics, fundraising, a drive team and mechanics. From January to April -- robotics season -- it's all business.
Clovis North's team, which has no seniors, consists of athletes, cheerleaders and musicians -- not just techies.
Students had six weeks to build a robot, said Frates, who started coaching robotics at Buchanan High School in 2004 and came to Clovis North two years ago. Like Clovis North, Buchanan won a rookie award in 2005, and Clovis North members credit Buchanan's team with mentoring them.
Now, Clovis North students are using their skills to mentor younger Clovis Unified students. They also have linked with Edison High School as mentors.
Edison students observed the Davis competition and left impressed.
"It's very familylike, not like sports," said Kati Duback, an Edison freshman. Teams are scored not only on their robots but also on how willing they are to cooperate with other teams, she said.
Edison, a science, math and technology school, will offer robotics as a fall class and up to 18 students plan to enroll, said Alycia Yeh, an Edison vice principal.
Frates said he expects Edison students to pave the way for others in their school and go on to mentor teams at other schools.
Eventually, he said, there may be enough Valley teams to host a major event similar to the Davis competition.
"We want to build a community and lean on each other," Frates said. "Robotics is a larger community sharing a larger end -- education in science and technology."