WAILUKU - Displaying the concentration of fighter pilots in a deadly aerial dogfight, the young combatants glared through their goggles, manipulated their joy stick controllers and deftly maneuvered their robots through a buzzing, clicking, whirring game of "Sack Attack."
Their goal: to maneuver green and yellow sacks into one of three scoring areas - a home tile, a trough 18 inches off the floor and a "high goal," with the most points, 30 inches off the floor.
One team put its robot's sacks into the high goal, and the crowd went wild.
Four teams, including Lahainaluna (far right), compete in a preliminary round Saturday.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
There was plenty of intensity and excitement packed into the Baldwin High School Gymnasium as 40 intermediate and high school teams and their "alliances" did their best to outwit and outlast one another in the VEX Robotics Competition, held in conjunction with the Maui Fair.
In the end, top honors went to a three-team alliance of two Mililani High School teams, known as the "Trojanbots, and a Pearl City High School team. Second place went to the alliance of - again - two Mililani High teams and Punahou School "Buffi'n Blue" team.
The Team of Excellence Award went to the Hilo Viking Robotics team from Hilo High School.
The highest ranking Maui team from qualification matches was Baldwin High School's VEX team, which ranked in fifth place.
Other Valley Isle teams were Maui, Kekaulike and Lahainaluna high schools and Iao and Maui Waena intermediate schools.
Maui High School robotics co-adviser Keith Imada said that the competition was fierce, and there was no dishonor not winning.
"I was proud of our teams . . . all the Maui teams," he said. "The competition was stiff."
Imada said there were some "tough calls . . . just like any sport," but, in the end, "the matches were great."
For the uninitiated, it might seem kind of funny to be cheering for a robot, he said, "but it's a competition . . . It's pretty cool."
Baldwin High School junior Sean Endo said that although his Baldwin Robotics team lost in the semifinals, and other Baldwin teams lost in the quarter finals, "it was exciting. . . . It was really an enjoyable experience."
Endo said he competed three years ago when he was at Iao Intermediate School, but now the competition has intensified.
Now, instead of the team having only one robot, the Baldwin team had four robots.
Endo's job was to drive the fourth robot, known as "Ryad."
"I was not expecting to get into the semifinals, but I got into it," he said.
Now, robotics is not an activity for nerds or geeks, he said. Other students are "really supportive of robotics."
Endo said his experience has inspired him to pursue a career in mechanical engineering. He said he has not picked out which college he'd apply for admission. For now, he's concentrating on honors classes in chemistry and pre-calculus, he said.
Imada said robotics has been attracting high school athletes, possibly because they enjoy the competition.
While it's fun, students also learn teamwork, design and engineering, and they find practical applications for science and math, he said.
Then, once a robot is designed and built, "you get to see how your ideas stack up against everybody else," Imada said.
The top teams finishing in Saturday's event in Wailuku qualified for the 2013 VEX Robotics Competition World Championship April 17 to 20 in Anaheim, Calif.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.