Wilson robotics team District championship qualification in contention after underperforming at tournament


Elie Salem

“The Stands,” shown above, is where each match is held. Two teams of three robots each compete in the center by tossing balls, placing hatches, and climbing pedestals.

Elie Salem

The offense and defense players scramble to their positions, the spectators cheer wildly in anticipation, the whistle blows, and the game begins. Immediately, Wilson leaps into the spotlight, seizing a ball and dunking it for a three-pointer. The opponents push on, sinking shot after shot to the adoration of their fans. The buzzer rings.

This isn’t March Madness. This is the first playoff match of the Chesapeake District Robotics tournament: Tiger Pride’s second to last chance to qualify for the District Championship in April. Wilson’s robotics team, Tiger Pride, and their alliance members lose 55 to 24.

The team had six weeks to put together a robot capable of either tossing a large ball in a net four feet above the ground or placing a covering onto a hole at ground level. Robots that could lift themselves onto raised pedestals of various heights earned extra points.

“We worked on the robot for hours upon hours over the course of six weeks, staying after school every day. The earliest I ever leave Wilson is seven, we can stay as late as 10 or 11,” said junior Ricardo Sheler, Tiger Pride’s driver.

The tournament was held at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, and involved a total of 36 teams from across the DMV. Each team brought their robot, which often exceeded the size of a shopping cart, into the school on Friday.

Elie Salem
“The Pit” is where teams make small changes and repairs to their robots in between matches. In the image shown above, Zach Kent, Ricardo Sheler, and staff sponsor Angela Benjamin discuss improvements to the robot following the second playoff match.

Throughout the tournament, competitors transition from “The Pit,” a large room where improvements and last-minute repairs to the robot are made, to “The Stands,” where the matches are held. A total of 72 qualification matches are held over the course of Sunday morning and the entirety of Saturday. In each qualification match, two “alliances” composed randomly of three robots battle to score the most points. All matches last an action-packed two minutes, and is accompanied by commentators, advertisements, and music.

Based partly on their performance in qualification rounds, a select 24 teams make it to the play-off rounds on Sunday afternoon. The process for moving on to playoffs is a combination of luck, skill, and politicking: the top-scoring eight teams are crowned “alliance captains,” and each get to choose two teams ranked lower than them to compose their three-team alliance. Many robotics teams, including Wilson, assign someone to speak to other teams to form alliances during the tournament.

After underperforming in the first day of qualification matches, the robotics team headed back to The Pit and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. “We hadn’t driven on the field before, and we had too much weight on the top, so [the robot] was rocking around a lot,” said junior Zak Kent, a mechanical lead. “[Saturday evening,] we took a lot of weight off the robot.”

While Wilson’s team didn’t score high enough to be their own alliance captain, they were chosen the eighth seed alliance for the playoffs. The pressure was on: Wilson needed to rack up as many points as possible in the playoffs to propel them to the District Championships and make up for their undistinguished record in the qualification matches. Each playoff match is best out of three, so a team needs two wins to advance.

The first playoff match was a wipe-out. The opponents scored twice the total number of points, despite the three ball placements initially made by Wilson’s robot.

Part of the reason for the loss was issues with the other two robots on Wilson’s team. One of the robots was just a ramp on wheels, designed to help another robot make it to the pedestals, and was incapable of scoring points by placing balls or covering holes.  The alliance captain’s robot was more successful, but still scored less than Wilson in the two matches.

During this match, a catastrophe occured: one of the captain’s robots motors was struck by an opponent, making them incapable of placing balls in the next match.

“A small mistake can kill the entire robot’s functionality, and I’m pretty sure that’s what happened to our teammates in the playoff rounds,” said sophomore Gabriel Mogzec, an electronics technician.

The captain team considered not participating in the next match, but their replacement would be School Without Walls’ robot, another ramp on wheels, which the alliance did not need.

After a brief 10 minute interlude, Wilson was up for the second play-off match, now just one loss away from being eliminated from the tournament. A strong performance from Sheler, the robot’s driver, gave the team an early lead. That initial success was shattered by a string of successful ball placements by the opponents. One minute through and the score was neck and neck. Three ball placement in a row made by the opponent were each matched by Wilson. 23-23, 26-23, 26-26, 29-26, 29-29.

As the opponents slowly began to take the lead, the ramp-bot saw its opportunity. It positioned itself in front of the highest pedestal, worth a hefty 12 points to any robot that can get on top of it, and extended to its full length. Only a dozen seconds were left on the clock for this tricky maneuver. The alliance captain’s robot shot backwards, positioning itself to run up the ramp and secure the 12 point pedestal.

What could have been a moment of triumph turned into a unmitigated disaster. In the critical moment, instead of allowing the alliance captain to climb up, the plastic ramp simply bent against the oncoming force. While the opponents were scoring ball placements and covering hatches, the other two members of Wilson’s team were smashing into each other again and again in front of a 12-point pedestal.

The buzzer sounded. The final score was 50 to 31. Wilson was out of the playoffs.

While the defeat was disappointing, the Wilson robotics team learned some important lessons. Sheler and fellow robotics team member Lucy Levenson discusses the possibility of attending a regional tournament in future years before the district tournament to help practice driving skills and give the robot a test-run, though the tournament’s $4,000 price tag makes that difficult. Wilson used to attend regional tournaments yearly, because winning a regional automatically qualified a team for World Championships, but the rules changed and now teams participating in District events can only qualify through those. Other members suggested finding potential practice fields, such as one in George Mason University.

“I know that it sets us back, but I’m also seeing it as a major learning experience. It’s shown us what we can improve on for next time,” said Mogzec.

Wilson’s ultimate objective is to get the approximately 60 district points, based on a number of scoring factors, required to qualify for the District Championships. Wilson only picked up 19 at this tournament, 11 short of their goal. Wilson last chance to boost their ranking in the district will be a strong showing in the Oxon Hill tournament on the weekend of the 23rd. “If the next competition goes like the one before, we probably won’t qualify for District Champs,” said Kent.

Placing in the top third of the District Championships qualifies a team for the World Championships, the most prestigious tournament in the First Robotics Competition circuit.