BHS robotics team members keep cool, take FIRST in final

The Baldwin High School robotics team members found themselves in a David vs. Goliath match against perennial champion Waialua High School of Oahu this past weekend at the FIRST Hawaii Regional robotics competition on Oahu.

A victory over Waialua that brought home the 2011 FIRST Robotics World Championship would give the Bears their second trip in as many years to the FIRST national championships in St. Louis later this month.

“There was a lot of anxiety and nervousness because it was the final match,” said freshman programmer Aubrey Unemori, one of nine students who traveled to the competition at the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“We didn’t think we would win regionals.”

The Bears, as part of a three-team alliance with Leilehua and Kalani high schools of Oahu, ended up slaying the mighty Bulldogs and their alliance, 82-71, and, 89-56, in the best of three final.

“They’re such a good team, and it was an honor to beat them,” said junior Joseph Albright, who designed the shooting mechanism for their robot. “It was a challenge, but we did it.”

The Bears’ challenge started in the qualifying rounds when they finished with a 7-5 record, placing them 11th out of 37 teams.

“It’s always disappointing to finish real far in the back because you’re not in charge and you don’t get to call all the shots,” said coach Gary Suter.

In the FIRST robotics competition, the top eight qualifiers get to chose two teams with whom to form an alliance to compete in best two-out-of-three elimination rounds. Teams outside the top eight must lobby for their team’s selection, showing videos, pamphlets and whatever else might convince a top team to pick them.

“We weren’t sure that we were going to get picked or not,” Albright said about their robot, “Henry the V,” a combination of the school’s namesake Henry Perrine Baldwin and the school’s fifth robot in its history. “We discussed with the eighth seed (Iolani School) about forming an alliance. . . . We were caught a little off guard when Leilehua (the third seed) picked us.”

Every year, the robotics competition announces a game that schools must compete in. This year’s game included two parts: a “high hang,” where robots are awarded points for reaching certain heights on a pyramid, and a frisbee shooting competition, where points are given when frisbees are successfully launched into goals.

Albright and Suter explained that their robot was built to shoot frisbees with pinpoint accuracy, which helped them finish with 500 total points in the qualifying – second only to Waialua.

“It was like a minihowitzer,” Suter said. “That thing could hit the same spot over and over again. . . . I think that’s why they chose us.”

Albright estimated that the robot could shoot frisbees about 75 feet.

“It could definitely do some damage,” he said.

Their decision to create an offensive-oriented robot had its drawbacks.

Sophomore Jacques Arnoult, who was in charge of the air-powered pistons that load the frisbees, said their robot got roughed up a bit during the qualifying rounds.

The Bears built their robot to be fast and agile, he said, and had to rely on their sturdier allies to clear a path for their robot. The team even drew up basketball and football plays as part of their strategy, he said.

In the quarterfinals against an alliance led by Iolani, they created a strategy specifically aimed at negating the Raiders’ robot.

“Iolani had such a tremendous blocking machine that the kids were referring to it as ‘Mutombo,’ ” Suter said, referencing famous NBA shot-blocker Dikembe Mutombo. “They got overconfident though, and I talked with the kids, and we came up with a strategy that worked out really well.”

The strategy was to use Kalani and Leilehua as lead blockers, or “fullbacks,” while their robot followed closely behind and scored goals, Suter said.

Their strategy carried them into the finals match against Waialua’s alliance, which included Punahou School and Sacred Hearts Academy, both of Oahu.

Sophomore Blayd Calaro, who drove the robot for the first time that day, said he started to get into a groove after the qualifying matches but said nothing could prepare him for the tension he would experience in the finals.

“Those matches were the most intense,” he said of the 2 minute 15 second long matches against the four-time defending regional champs. “I was nervous but tried to keep my cool.

“I tried to do what I had to do.”

In the finals, the Bears alliance changed their strategy and concentrated on stopping the Bulldogs’ robot, which scored 697 total points in the qualifying rounds.

“We got Waialua cornered for about five seconds to get points on them,” Arnoult said. “They couldn’t recover.”

Aside from their victory, Robert Brem, the team’s mentor and an engineer from their chief sponsor The Boeing Co., was given the Woodie Flowers Finalist Award.

The aerospace company, along with a dozen other companies, sponsor the Bears and help cover the $5,000 entry fee and the robot itself. The remaining costs, such as travel, are borne by the students.

Albright, who has been on the team since his freshman year, did not travel with the team last year to the nationals due to cost.

“Oh I’m definitely going this year,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

Other Maui schools competing in the contest were Maui High, which was defeated by the Waialua alliance in the semifinals, losing the deciding match by two points, and Lahainaluna High School.

Maui High finished fifth in the qualifying rounds and selected an alliance that included Greater Sydney High Schools from Australia and Island Pacific Academy of Kapolei, Oahu.

In its quarterfinal match, the Maui High alliance defeated the Lahainaluna alliance, which included Maryknoll and Farrington high schools of Oahu.

Lahainaluna finished sixth in the qualifying rounds.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at