A team worth cheering

Published 12:13 pm Saturday, March 23, 2013

If members of the Franklin High School robotics team wore helmets and shoulder pads, they’d have been honored with a parade down Main Street by now.

The team’s accomplishment last weekend — winning the FIRST World Robotics Championship regional competition in Richmond — is no less impressive, and perhaps more, than the state football championships FHS has won in the past decade.

The football Broncos deserved every accolade that came their way. The robotics team deserves more.

Against tall odds, the FHS “Builders of Tomorrow” emerged from a field of 60-plus teams from Virginia and five other states to be one of just six that will advance to the world championship in St. Louis in late April.

The 11-member team — Elizabeth Conner, Oakley Sthole, Madi Busby, Cindy Mitrovic, Darryl West, Sarah Conner, Connor Shanks, Grant Scarboro, Clinton Smith, Jatrez Foster and Dean Alex Russell – was ranked just 55th statewide going into the regional competition. Sponsored by a nonprofit called FIRST (“For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology”), the competition featured handmade robots that could climb pyramids, throw Frisbees and overcome other challenges. Judges graded each team based on innovation, science, speed, precision and technology.

Unlike in high school athletics, where schools of comparable size compete against one another in the playoffs, the FHS robotics team went up against larger schools with up to 40 members on a team.

For perspective, think the classic movie “Hoosiers” and tiny Hickory High School beating the city boys from South Bend for the Indiana state championship in 1952. The FHS robotics championship compares favorably, except for the fact that sporting accomplishments still trump academic excellence in today’s society.

There were no marching bands, cheerleaders and screaming fans waiting at the Franklin High gym when the Builders got home from Richmond last weekend. Coach Liz Burgess was no less proud.

“They are the best! We were ranked 55th and we won it all,” Burgess told The Tidewater News. “They faced a lot of adversity and nobody gave up. They were resilient to the end and they persevered. I am beyond proud.”

Burgess, like her team, is underappreciated. She toils endlessly on nights and weekends for months leading up to competition. It’s good timing that husband, Benny, a certified public accountant, is buried in tax returns during robotics season.

Adult mentors from the community like Kyle Johnson, Don Shanks, Hank Mummert and John Neave contribute their time and expertise to Team 1610.

The robotics team represents all that is right about Franklin’s public schools, which tend to be defined more by their deficiencies than their successes. The robotics kids remind of a point made in this space many times: The best and brightest from Franklin High School can compete toe to toe and brain to brain with the best and brightest from anywhere in the state.

FIRST robotic programs are active in schools around the globe, with more than 300,000 students worldwide (10,000 from Virginia) involved in the science and engineering of high-tech robots.

The goal of FIRST, according to its mission statement, is to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders, by engaging them in mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills that inspire innovation. Students have the opportunity to compete for more than $16 million in college scholarships internationally.

It is precisely the kind of program and students we should be celebrating, as a community and as a society.