The best teams in Minnesota high school robotics come from schools so small that some of their student bodies could fit in a movie theater with room to spare.
In robotics, three teams compete together as an “alliance.” And at the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) robotics championship earlier this month, the championship trophy was taken home by the small-town alliance of Greenbush Middle River (combined population 1,010), Frazee-Vergas (pop. 1,681) and Eden Valley-Watkins (pop. 2,004).
It’s the second MSHSL robotics title for Greenbush Middle River, which was on the winning alliance in 2016, and the first for the other schools. The three teams also competed together in April at the FIRST Robotics world championship tournament in Detroit, which is run separately from the state tourney by an international robotics organization.
“We feel really honored,” said Rob Flaschenriem, coach of the Eden Valley-Watkins team. “Our thing was, if we could do our best and do what we do, we’d have a really good chance.” Eden Valley-Watkins has about 500 students in grades 7-12.
Flaschenriem said the high school principal, Bruce Kiehn, “was in tears when we told him. He was just beside himself.”
At Greenbush Middle River, which has about 135 students enrolled in high school, Superintendent Tom Jerome praised the robotics competition for bringing out the best in students.
“This program is about lifting each other up and putting together the very best robot you can,” he said. The spirit of the sport is that teams help each other, he added.
“It’s not about beating your competition,” Jerome said. “It’s about lifting everyone up.”
Still, it’s a thrill for teams from rural Minnesota to take on the largest schools in the state — and win.
“To go against these big schools in unbelievable,” said Andy Paulson, robotics coach at Frazee-Vergas, which has about 400 students in grades 7-12. “Our kids get inspired by these big schools.
“To hang with these big schools and beat them is amazing.”
Paulson said robotics teaches students a wide array of valuable skills, not only in technical areas, but also in teamwork and communication.
Frazee-Vergas should be a robotics power for some time to come. Of the 32 students on this year’s championship team, 26 are ninth-graders or younger.