[If you're not familiar with this year's FIRST Robotics Competition game, here's a short video introduction. It may be hard to understand the following without that knowledge.]
When I first started mentoring on the Krypton Cougars, they were, to be blunt, not very good. They were only in their second year and had limited resources. Through the years that I spent mentoring the team, I watched them slowly become an average team. Occasionally winning or doing well, occasionally doing quite the opposite, a team with growing name recognition, but at best only a competent support robot.
After more than a decade, though, with an impossible number of hours in the books, the Krypton Cougars have been to the world championship twice, most recently finishing on Einstein, the finals of the finals. It's been an exciting journey, even though I've only been able to watch the past few years from the sidelines.
Due to COVID, competitions had been closed to spectators and I haven't been able to watch them in person since 2019, so it was extremely exciting to finally attend Ramp Riot, one of their off-season events, this fall. The team did very well during qualifications, losing only one match and finishing second overall. As alliance captains they chose Roboforce, a competent shooter and with minimal climbing ability, as their first pick. Their second pick was Dawgma, chosen to serve as a defense robot and block scoring by the opposing alliance.
FIRST is trying out a new double-elimination format for their playoff matches this off-season. Before their first match could even start, Dawgma was working on their robot on the field, attempting to get it to connect to their control system. They did not succeed. Their robot never moved the entire match, allowing the opposing alliance to play double-team defense, and just like that the Krypton Cougars found themselves in the losers bracket, with a score of 81 to 94.
Dawgma was unable to repair their robot before the next match, so they were replaced by the highest remaining team, the PSIcotics, a robot that I had first taken note of early in the competition when parts of it started falling off during their match, but at least they could move. Our alliance won easily, staying alive for one more match.
The next elimination match was against the first-place alliance. It was a close match, particularly since all three of the robots on the opposing alliance were capable of climbing, while the only reliable climber on our alliance was the Krypton Cougars, but our alliance managed to stay alive 109 to 106. The following match the Krypton Cougars won handily, but PSIcotics began to have mechanical issues and spent the final minute of the match barely able to move.
Fortunately, by then Dawgma had gotten their issues sorted out, so they returned to our alliance for the final match of the losers bracket. The match started unexpectedly. Literally. Apparently someone accidentally triggered the match too soon. Fortunately, no humans were on the field at the time. The match was stopped and the robots were set up again. The actual match started extremely close, and our second shooter, Roboforce, died near the sideline almost immediately after the autonomous period. With Dawgma playing defense, the Krypton Cougars were the entire offense. The opposing alliance devoted a robot to blocking them the entire match. Trying to score as many points as possible, the Krypton Cougars ran out of time and didn't complete their climb. Fortunately, Dawgma was able to get on the bars, resulting in a final score of 80 to 79. Our alliance was going to the finals.
Now, unlike most double-elimination tournaments, there is a reset built into grand finals, making them best of three. We were now on even footing. During the timeout before the match, Roboforce was able to repair their machine, and the first match of the finals was a high scoring affair, as both teams focused on shooting cargo into the goal. With three functional climbing robots, our alliance was able to pull off the victory with a score of 115 to 105.
However, after the match, the programming mentor said "We're dragging a swerve module." Sure enough, in the pits they discovered that one of their wheels was broken. Without adequate time to replace it, the Krypton Cougars opted to play on three wheels. The next match began rockily, as the autonomous program was unable to compensate for the broken wheel. As soon as the autonomous period ended, Dawgma shot across the field to play defense, slammed head-on into an opposing robot, and spent the rest of the match disabled. With the Krypton Cougars robot noticeably hesitant on the field, the lead cycled back and forth between the alliances. With only three wheels, pushing around defenders was no longer an option. Then, with twenty seconds remaining in the match, disaster struck. A defending robot pushed the Krypton Cougars sideways against the opposing alliance wall and our robot was unable to get free. It spent the rest of the match vibrating furiously, unable to climb for the end game. Just like that, the grand finals were tied.
Dawgma spent the timeout on the field working furiously on their disabled robot, and were able to get it working again in time for the tie-breaker match. The Krypton Cougars were still only using three wheels, but managed to come out of the autonomous period with a two-point lead. Unfortunately, seconds into the match, Dawgma drove into the center goal, disabling their robot for good. Defense continued to be stiff, but Roboforce acquitted themselves admirably, cycling points into the goal regularly and keeping opposing robots off the Krypton Cougars. Playing defense took its toll, however, and with a minute remaining their robot stopped working.
This would be the part, in past years, where some mentor explained that it was just bad luck. Obviously, the Krypton Cougars did the best they could, but you can't reasonably expect to win a three-on-one match against the alliance that ran the winners bracket without a loss, even if the robot was working perfectly, which it isn't.
This is not previous years. The Krypton Cougars kept scoring until the last moment, and began their climb with only seconds remaining. The Krypton Cougars wobbled on the bars, but climbed quickly. As the timer hit zero, the Krypton Cougars transitioned to the final bar while the end-of-match buzzer sounded. The Krypton Cougars won Ramp Riot, with a final match score of 91 to 84.
Thanks to the hard work that students and mentors put in year after year, three other teams went home with trophies and a great story to share. Finally, we are not just a team that can win. We are a team that can elevate others.