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DL Robotics team is best in state

BEST IN MINNESOTA: The Detroit Lakes QWERTY Robotics team took first place at the North Star Regional FIRST competition at the U of M over the weekend. Front: Deni Danielson, Nathan Hoff (back, left to right) Jesse Bergh, Ben Bergh, Randall Fish, Debbie Janzen, Kraig Erickson, Drake Halver, Jeff Fish, Patrick Link, Nick Roethel, and Jacob Conway.

They have only been in existence for two years, but the Detroit Lakes High School Robotics team, known as QWERTY Team 3278, has already added a state championship to its resumé.

"I don't think any of us could breath for like 30 minutes," said senior and QWERTY captain Patrick Link of winning the title, adding, "We never saw it coming."

The Detroit Lakes group competed against 60 teams at the FIRST North Star Regional competition (FIRST meaning "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology") at the University of Minnesota over the weekend.

"It hasn't sunk in that we are actually going to nationals. I can't believe it, it's so surreal," said sophomore Craig Erickson.

The 11 Detroit Lakes students built a robot and a mini-bot from scratch, with direction from seven volunteer mentors.

Their robot competed against other robots. The challenge was to get their "bot" to pick up inner tubes from the floor, hang them on horizontal pegs on the wall, then deploy a mini-bot from the back of the robot, which would race up a pole and switch on a light.

But with problems bubbling to the surface right away, the team had low expectations.

"They had a mini-bot that didn't work and an arm that they couldn't get to work (on the main robot) before we left, and rather than just folding it in, they kept going," said mentor and BTD Engineer Nathan Hoff.

Without being able to get points on the offensive, the team switched tactics.

"Our robot never scored a point, but we didn't let the other teams get a point either, which made it possible for our alliance team to score," said sophomore Jeff Fish.

When the QWERTY's alliance team scored, that meant a point for the DL team as well, leading to a championship won solely through 19 rounds of hard defense.

"We had other teams behind us chanting 'Miracle' like the '80 U.S. Hockey Team, because nobody expected us to win," said Link, as his teammate Drake Halver added, "It really was a Cinderella ending."

"I wasn't there for finals," said sophomore and QWERTY team member Joya Hekkanen, smiling as she added, "So when they called me and told me we won, I thought they were playing a late April Fools joke on me."

If it was a joke, the punch line is now setting in, as the team is in scramble mode preparing for the national competition, set for April 27 in St. Louis, Mo.

The team will be up against the brightest and biggest teams from around the world.

"There are teams that have groups of people just for advertising alone," said junior Jacob Conway as he tinkered with the robot. "We're a small team and we all just work on the bot."

The students say they learned a lot from the competition, so they are now busy tweaking their robot and implementing different ideas for their presentation.

Out of the approximately 2,075 robotics teams worldwide, the Detroit Lakes QWERTY team is one of the 271 going to nationals, which is actually more of an international event.

The DL students will be facing teams from Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

The winner of that competition will get a free trip to the White House to perform for the President, and three full college scholarships.

In the meantime though, it's one foot in front of the other for the QWERTY team.

"We have to ship our bot off by tomorrow night (Tuesday night) and do fundraising like crazy," said Hoff.

BTD Manufacturing is paying the $5,000 entry fee, leaving the team with approximately $7,000 to raise.

"We need funds to get everybody there, (and for) lodging, food and additional parts," said mentor Debbie Janzen.

The team will be soliciting sponsors, selling Lakeshirts T-shirts and LED light bulbs, and putting on a pancake feed.

To donate to the Detroit Lakes Robotics Team, call Debbie Janzen at 701-388-9697.