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Indiana State champs!

BY BRIAN PAUL KAUFMAN - bkaufman@perutribune.com

Somebody should pinch Kirby Lane. 

North Miami’s WarriorTech Robotics Club won the Indiana FTC State Championship on Saturday at Crawfordsville Senior High School and Lane, a mentor for the program, still can’t believe it. 

“I’m still not sure it’s real, Lane said on Monday. 

Now the team advances to the “Super-Regional,” set for March 15-17 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa – just one stop short of the “Super Bowl” that will be held in Detroit in April.

During the most recent competition, WarriorTech was just one of 32 teams vying to advance. 

But unlike some squads that also have adults performing tasks, each WarriorTech student member has a job and must execute.

Coach Tara Lane, and mentors Andy Pfaffenbach and Lane are there for moral support and guidance, but “we let the kids do it all,” Lane said. 

For example, Riley Stein and Noah Pfaffenbach are the robot’s drivers. Programmer Tommy Lane makes sure all the electronics are good to go.

Nathan Winters stays in the “pits” to talk to people who visit to learn more about the program, such as other teams and judges, Lane said.

Kaylee Lane serves as the team’s scouter, studying other teams’ capabilities so they can pick the best possible partner – since two teams compete in against two others in each competition. 

Or as the sponsor of the events, First Tech Challenge puts it: “Teams are responsible for designing, building, and programming their robots in a 10-week build period to compete in an alliance format against other teams.” 

And who could forget the youngsters on the team: Landyn Wagner and Austin Knauff.

During the first match on Saturday, they were allied with the “Lectric Legends” and won. “That went pretty well,” Lane said.

The second, however, did not. In fact, “horribly” is probably a better description, he said. 

A game piece somehow got knocked into WarriorTech’s scoring area and they just couldn’t manage to remove it, he said.

The loss was their first in a qualifying match all year – so they were understandably upset, Lane said.

But the mark of a great team is their ability to rally when they’re down – and WarriorTech did just that. “We had some pep talks and they came back strong,” he said, winning their third match.

They faced another big challenge when they lost again in the semi finals, with the winners scoring a record number of points, he said. 

“We got absolutely destroyed,” Lane said. “Things were not looking good ... I thought we were done.”

But they won the two following rounds and advanced to the finals with their alliance partners.

“The kids really came through,” he said.

The icing on the victory cake: They won the “Control” award, which is essentially for excellence in their programming. 

WarriorTech originally began work in September and faced their first competition on Jan. 6. 

Between when they first started and Saturday, Lane said he’s seen significant progress. The team has a knack for shifting gears when something isn’t working and finding a more productive route to score. 

Employed by Chrysler in Kokomo, Lane said the the students have incorporated some of the company’s lean manufacturing principles, including documenting failures and using tools to solve problems. 

Old-fashioned hard work has to play a role as well: they often practice four days a week starting after school and go well into the evening, he said.

Another big plus: the team has enjoyed encouragement from North Miami Community Schools superintendent Nick Eccles, Lane said. “He’s excited for us. He’s been a real allie for the team and an awesome individual to work with.”

The upcoming Super-Regional in Cedar Rapids appears to have a more relaxed pace, at least at first: Thursday will be devoted to robot inspections and interviews with judges, followed by qualifying matches on Friday, with the finals and awards on Saturday. 

The “Super Bowl” in Detroit on April 25 to 28 – if they get that far – is a four day affair. 

The team has received significant financial support from the Miami County Community Foundation, among others, but with the success has come added expenses, such as travel, meals and lodging. 

Indiana FTC covered WarriorTech’s entrance fee for the state championship to the tune of $750 – which was a big help. 

Lane said they’re hoping additional sponsors will come onboard as well. The team has a range of opportunities – and just $1,000 will get a sticker on the team’s robot itself.

For a company in search of some online advertising, that might be not be a bad idea, since the event will likely be live-streamed yet again.

Meanwhile, Lane said the team may add a new tech wrinkle to help push them across the finish line. “They’re going to give it all they’ve got,” he said.