Minnesota's best high school robotics teams built their robots and cruised their way through the challenges that would determine this year's state champion: a "snow remover" and "snow thrower" contest, in which the huge robots would have to follow specific routes and launch "snowballs" with speed and accuracy.
They gave it their best shot, waited for the results, and later learned who had won the state title.
Then there was a malfunction.
When the results of this year's state tournament were announced May 29, Faribault High School landed the top spot, and Eagle Ridge Academy, a Minnetonka charter school, was a close second. But questions about tabulation of the winning scores prompted tournament organizers to revisit their decisions — injecting a wave of drama into an event that had already weathered major disruptions because of the pandemic.
On Friday, nearly a week after the awards ceremony, tournament officials and the Minnesota State High School League were still trying to sort out whether Faribault would get to keep its title, share it with Eagle Ridge or slip to second place. Student competitors, eager to celebrate after a tumultuous season and school year, were waiting anxiously to see whether they'd be able to call themselves state champions.
"It's really been a roller coaster through this entire process," said Tom Dudgeon, a member of the Eagle Ridge team.
Tournament organizers and the teams involved said there's nothing nefarious about the scoring dispute. If there's anywhere to place blame, it's on human error — and the pandemic.
Typically, the state championship is a major event, where hundreds of students from school districts large and small bring robots they've built to compete in a series of games. It's a big deal in a state where robotics has been soaring in popularity; just 36 of more than 200 teams qualify for the event.
Last year's state tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. This year, with COVID-19 concerns still in play, organizers decided to reshape the competition into a virtual one. Teams were given the rules of competition and then asked to film their robots completing each challenge. Then, the teams sent in their videos and spreadsheets of scores they tabulated themselves.
That's where things got complicated.
Steve Peterson, board chairman for FIRST in Upper Midwest, the robotics organization that runs the state tournament in partnership with the state high school league, said questions about the winning scores came up shortly after the results were announced. Students on several teams were eager to compare their performances. In doing so, some spotted what appear to be two separate mistakes in how scores were submitted and tabulated.
Compounding the problem, Peterson said, was that the rules drafted for this year's competition didn't specifically cover what would happen in this kind of situation. So a volunteer committee spent much of the week talking to the affected schools, consulting the scores and videos and contemplating how to proceed. Peterson said it's taken so long because the tournament organizers wanted to make sure they get things right and can fully close the book on this year's tournament.
"Otherwise, you end up on this treadmill of changing [the results] and changing it again," he said.
Tim Leighton, a spokesman for the Minnesota State High School League, declined to comment on the situation but said his organization planned to release a statement at some point.
The tournament committee was scheduled to meet again with the affected schools on Friday evening. At both Faribault High and Eagle Ridge Academy, teams and administrators were optimistic that they'd be recognized as winners.
"The results haven't changed; Faribault is still the State Champs," Keith Badger, Faribault's activities director, said in an e-mail Friday.
At Eagle Ridge, Dudgeon and fellow teammate Spencer Mein said they were optimistic that they were about to cap their senior year with a major accomplishment: earning their school's first state championship in any sport or activity run by the state high school league.
Dudgeon said that even a second-place finish amounted to a big deal for a small school and team. When he was a freshman, his team placed 53rd of 54 teams at a regional tournament. Now here he was, waiting to learn for sure if he'd end his high school robotics career with an unexpected, last-minute upset.
"This is what we've poured our hearts into," he said.
Erin Golden • 612-673-4790