By Todd Martin
Special to the Daily Herald
ATLANTA - The Shoemaker High School Cyberwolves are competing this week on a global scale at the FIRST Robotics national championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
Twenty-five students and their teachers and engineering mentors made the 18-hour bus trip from Killeen to take part in the competition among 344 teams representing almost every state and six countries.
In the first day of competition Thursday, the Cyberwolves emerged from three matches without a loss, scoring two ties and a win as Shoemaker teammates shouted encouragement.
In the first two of five matches Friday, the Cyberwolves and their alliance partners netted two more wins, the result of mechanical adjustments made to their robot.
Students spent much of the past two days at the stadium in downtown Atlanta making repairs and adjustments in a pit crew area that had the look and feel of an international showcase.
About a half-hour before each scheduled match, the team's four robot handlers carted their wheeled robot from the pit area in the Georgia World Congress Center to the playing area inside the adjacent stadium.
Music, high-energy announcers, banners and huge television monitors set a fun, competitive scene.
This year's event, called Breakaway, has wheeled robots picking up and hurling soccer balls toward goals. Teams may also score points by using a robotic arm to hoist the robot off the ground.
Following the first day of matches, students said it was a victory to emerge without a loss and a privilege to play alongside the best teams in the world.
"It's cool we made it here," said Jessica Shea, a Shoemaker senior and the designated student coach among the four robot handlers. The Cyberwolves won the Lone Star Regional in Houston in a three-team alliance to qualify for the national level.
"We seem to have a good robot here," Shea said. "It's amazing we're with the best in the world. This place is monstrous. You have to walk a half-a-mile to get over there."
After the regional competition in Houston, the Cyberwolves had to make significant repairs to its robot. They changed the wheels, but found Thursday the new wheels needed adjustment to move faster on the playing surface.
Shoemaker senior Stephen Morton, the manipulator on the four-person team on the floor said the first day helped the Cyberwolves identify areas of weakness. "The benefit was to see the next step," he said. "Now, we have some key knowledge."
On Friday, the adjustments seemed to pay off as the Shoemaker team won two morning matches.
In a competition where spirit and gracious professionalism matter, the Cyberwolves received props for their blue-tinted camouflage pants and attention for their spirit crew in the stands.
As the four robot handlers readied to compete, the rest of the team sat in the stadium's front row cheering and chanting. The team arrived at the stadium hours early to ensure good seats to cheer on their team.
Charles Douglas, a Shoemaker senior, wore the Super Cyberwolf costume with a wolf head. "We're the loudest in this group," he said. "Other teams complain because we're so loud."
Douglas said team members felt like they should have won the spirit award at the regional event and that they were motivated to compete for it at the national level.
Whatever happens in the final day of competition today, the Cyberwolves and their teachers and mentors will be proud and motivated to make it to the highest level of robotics competition again.
"I never thought I would be standing here in the middle of the Georgia Dome or any dome," said senior Marcel McClain, who took a spot as one of the four robot handlers on Friday.
Engineer John Gregory, a mentor with the Shoemaker team since 2003, said making it to nationals was a huge accomplishment and a great opportunity for the students.
"This is the ultimate," Gregory said while assisting with robot repairs Friday. "I told them in Houston you haven't seen anything until you come here with 344 teams," he said.
He praised the FIRST environment, where teams from around the world gather and gladly assist one another. "You can turn around and borrow a $400 tool from someone and they don't care," he said.
The national experience, he said, would likely help the Cyberwolves grow next year and he said he hoped the attention would bring more sponsorship to the program.
"This experience helps the freshmen. After coming here they will be our pool for the building season," he said. "I wish more people could come see this. These kids are going somewhere."