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Members of Two Harbors High School's Rock Solid Robotics team look over their robot during competition on Friday. From left: Owen Cruikshank, Dennis Pearson, Mark Schlangen, Will Bohrer, Logan Anderson. (Photo by Colin Kealey-Swenson / Duluth East Daredevils)

Two Harbors robotics team headed to world match

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Two Duluth teams made the quarterfinals in separate FIRST Robotics regionals at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Saturday.

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But it's Rock Solid Robotics from Two Harbors that's going to St. Louis.

The FIRST Robotics World Championship in St. Louis in late April is the ultimate goal of high school robotics teams. In the fast-growing event, one rookie team is chosen from each regional to participate in worlds.

The judges bestowed the honor on Rock Solid Robotics after seeing them chosen for a three-team alliance that made it to the semifinal round of the Northern Lights Regional.

For the Duluth Denfeld Hunters, who participated in the Lake Superior Regional at the other end of the DECC's old arena, their quarterfinal finish marked a huge turnaround from a year ago.

After finishing next-to-last in the same regional last year, the second-year team finished the qualifying rounds on Saturday seeded seventh. That gave them the right to pick out two other teams to join them in an alliance. In FIRST Robotics, the competition pits two three-team alliances against each other in brief but furious efforts to score points and foil the other side's efforts to score. This year's competition requires robots to shoot Frisbees at targets, and to attempt to climb a steel pyramid.

"It was a severe turnaround from last year," said Robin Pugliss, a Denfeld sophomore who had friends on the team last year but didn't participate.

Last year, she said, "our robot barely moved."

Tara Williams, a senior who was on the team last year, agreed.

"It's so much better," Williams said of this season. "Everything worked the way it was supposed to."

Perhaps as significant as the improvement was the level of participation at Denfeld -- from nine students last year to 28 this year, one less than their cross-town rivals from East.

The Denfeld team included a couple of students from other schools. One was Austin Fuller, a senior at Esko, which doesn't have a team.

"Austin really came out of his shell when he joined this team," said Donny Fuller, his dad. "It's the most responsible I've ever seen him as a young man."

And he had never seen a group of kids work as hard, Donny Fuller said. That included a 48-hour period during winter break when they needed to reduce their robot's weight by 28 pounds to meet requirements for the competition. The team worked throughout that time in the Fullers' garage, he said, sleeping in shifts in their camper.

Duluth East captain Kirsi Kuutti, a senior and a four-year team member, said she was impressed with the accomplishments of both the Denfeld and Two Harbors teams.

About the Rock Solid Robots, Kuutti said, "They're so much more advanced than any rookie team I've ever met."

The 13-member team, which had 11 students and two faculty coaches, designed a robot that looked like it belonged on the showroom floor.

It was a community effort, said Lauren Burton, one of the coaches.

"I just can't believe the way that everything came together the way it did," said Burton, a special education teacher and the mother of one of the team members. "We had some great kids. It's almost as if they were waiting for this. It's as if the community was waiting for this to come."

The Duluth East Daredevils finished the qualifying rounds seeded sixth in the Northern Lights Regional. The team, which has competed in the world championships in St. Louis two years in a row, has high expectations for itself. The finish in Duluth won't get them to St. Louis, but they have another chance. The team is competing in an April 4 regional in Chicago.

"Chicago is a tougher place to win, but we chose that," said Tim Velner, in his fifth year as the team's coach.

Kuutti called it a "learning regional."

"We saw some flaws in how we drive (the robot)," she said. "We think we're going to modify it before we go to Chicago."

The Daredevils won the Excellence in Engineering Award sponsored by Delphi.

The team also snagged an individual award for Kuutti, who earned the "Dean's List Award," named for inventor Dean Kaman, the founder of FIRST Robotics. It's given to a student in recognition of technical knowledge, leadership skills and their ability to inspire their team, according to FIRST Robotics.

She received the award to a standing ovation from her peers from all the teams in the regional.

The award was well-deserved, Velner said.

"I look at the growth of FIRST Robotics in this town and I see Kirsi Kuutti behind everything," he said. "She's an incredible, incredible individual, and very talented. We'll miss her at East. We'll miss her on the Daredevils."

This was the third year for FIRST Robotics regionals in Duluth, but the first year it has hosted two regionals, a sign of the venue's growth. Minnesota has more robotics teams than hockey teams and more robotics teams than 47 other states. But it has regionals at only one other site: Minneapolis, where there also are two on the same day.

Denfeld isn't competing in another regional, but does hope to compete in the state competition in May, said Jim Arndt, one of the team's coaches. It's open to the top 30 teams in the state, he said.

FINALS

In the Lake Superior Regional, the winners were an alliance of Knightkrawler from Irondale High School in New Brighton, Minn.; C.O.R.E. from Waukesha Engineering Preparatory Academy in Waukesha, Wis.; and Pirhobotics from Aquinas High School in La Crosse, Wis.

In the Northern Lights Regional, the winners were an alliance of the Swartdogs from Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls, Iowa; Huskie Robotics from Naperville North High School in Naperville, Ill.; and the always colorfully attired King Tec from Prior Lake High School in Prior Lake and Savage, Minn.

The two alliances clashed in a just-for-bragging-rights match at the end of the awards ceremony, with the Lake Superior Regional's alliance winning by three points.

Other area teams that competed were Droba Warriors of Deer River High School, Mariner Robotics from William Kelley High School in Silver Bay, Kestrom from Cook County High School in Grand Marais, 12 Pretty Duckies from Eveleth-Gilbert, Marmota Monax from Duluth Marshall, Lion Pride from Lakeview Christian Academy and a team from Hibbing High School.

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