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Robotics honored at national meet

QWERTY Team members (from left) Jacob Conway, Drake Halver and Patrick Link stand ready to bring their robot (nicknamed "The Truck") into the arena at the FIRST national competition in St. Louis over the weekend.

QWERTY robotics, the Detroit Lakes High School robotics team, has certainly made a name for itself this year.

Although they placed 76th out of 88 in their division at the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) national championship in St. Louis, Mo., this past weekend, they all say they walked away feeling like winners.

"Once you decide that winning isn't everything, you become a winner ... I really believe that," said QWERTY sophomore Joya Hekkanen.

The team is part of a growing organization nation-wide, which has students building their own robots from a kit of parts, then competing against each other in sporting activities.

This small Cinderella team was an unlikely winner of the regional competition, as they wrap up their second year in existence.

They were crowned regional champion after hard defensive playing kept other schools' robots from scoring points.

Nationals, which was actually an international competition, proved tougher for the young team.

"We had some disappointment when, during a couple of different qualification rounds, our alliance teams did not show up at the arena with their robots," explained team advisor and mentor Debbie Janzen.

  "And in another qualification round, we were the only operating robot against three others since our alliance teams had one inoperable bot and the other one didn't make it to the arena."

DL Junior Jacob Conway says regardless of what place they came in, having a chance to compete in the event was "amazing."

"We were all ecstatic; there was an incredible amount of energy ... we were playing against the best of the best."

Some of the "best" included teams from Japan, Australia, Bosnia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

"It was entertaining because some of them didn't even speak English, or not much so they would try to communicate with you but would have to do it by using their hands or legs," laughed Hekkanen.

The team might not have led the competition in points on the field, but they definitely earned points off it, as they were nominated for a "gracious professionalism" award.

"All the teams vote for who is kind and generous, then it goes to the judges," explains team captain and the team's only senior, Patrick Link.

"It's helping other people, we helped other teams set up and troubleshoot when they needed it."

Link's mother, Pat, was also at the competition.

"The technology was amazing," said Link, "this whole team has been amazing. It's really filled a niche for students who aren't into sports or music."

Some QWERTY members say robotics has pushed them in a direction they might not have otherwise gone.

"I really didn't known what career field I wanted to go into before this, but now I'm certain I want to go into engineering or a science field," said Conway.

"Like we say, it's the hardest fun you'll ever have."

Meanwhile, team mentors can breath a little easier after a mad scramble to raise money for the students to go -- which ended up being $15,000 for the national competition alone.

They found their support mostly in proud, local companies BTD Manufacturing, SJE Rhombus, JCPenny, and TEAM Industries, along with NASA.

Now, as the team unwinds from four days of fun and frazzled nerves, their focus goes towards recruiting for next year's team.

"I hope there will be more girls that give it a try next year," said Hekkanen, who is one of only two girls on the team.

"Yeah, I think it'll grow," said Patrick Link, "even if somebody doesn't know anything about robotics, they can join and we will teach them ... that's the point -- it's a team effort."