Local high school robotics team takes on national competition

Clairton Robotics team overcomes adversity to defy expectations and take home the honors at regional and national BattleBots Championships this year.

Clairton High School has a history of successful football programs. Clinching titles over and over again, the team has proven itself in the football scene, winning more than 70 games in the past five years.

But this year, there was a new champion in town, coming from a very unsuspecting place.

Clairton junior, Eliza Sopka, one of the only girls on the Battle Bots IQ team, was determined to place well at Southwestern PA Regional Competition. Originally, the team had simply wanted a girl on their team to diversify the team makeup; they were not ready for the leadership role that Eliza would take. During her sophomore year she helped develop a design for the team that was carried on when the original team disbanded. Eliza found herself alone, with only one friend to help her fulfill the dream of winning the “King of the Ring” at the California, PA-based competition in March.

“At the beginning of my junior year it wasn’t difficult to think up an idea,” Eliza said, when explaining how she decided to use the design from last year’s team, with just a few alterations. One of these changes happened after an extensive brainstorming session in which Eliza designed a flipping device on her machine, Bazinga, that would flip opponents’ bots. It would prove to be incredibly beneficial in competition.

In the next step, she and her friend moved onto the prototyping phase, creating a model out of wood. While pursuing her flipping idea, Eliza was criticized and questioned, and those on her old team doubted her capabilities. She remembered the last year’s competition where she had accidentally dropped the bot the day before the event, only to reveal the vulnerabilities of the robot so that they could be fixed. Taking this in stride, she disregarded the argument and criticism.

Clairton Robotics Team & Bazinga / Photo courtesy of Pam Panchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Photo courtesy of Pam Panchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Obstacles, however, still abounded. Eliza not only had to confront robotics issues such as weight constraints (the bot had to fall under a 15 lb. limit) and lack of communication while building, but she also became sick during the year with a lung infection. Eliza was out of school for a month, in the hospital for two of those weeks, and had no way to get the documentation completed for competition day. However, during this time, Eliza’s leadership shined as she communicated with a friend from another team and obtained documentation in the hospital so that she could complete the required documents for her team.

Finally, competition day came. Clairton was not expected to win, in company with difficult competition from other schools. But despite what her peers had doubted at the beginning of the year, Bazinga’s flipping mechanism worked tremendously, leading Clairton to victories in all of their bouts and eventually to overall victory. When the team realized they had won, said Eliza, “the club advisor nearly tackled me to the ground because she was so happy.” First place was in hand, but at the end of the competition another surprise was in store when they were named Grand Champions and given admittance to the 2013 NRL National Competition.

Immediately, more difficulties arose. At the beginning of each year, the high school allotted a mere $1,000 budget, not enough for the production of a battle robot. Traveling to national competition in Indianapolis, IN seemed unlikely with no help other than team fundraisers and a lack of further funding from the school. After being “entered in the local newspaper” for support and “spending at least 16 hours returning calls and emails”, the team was amazed by an overwhelming support from around the nation, said Clairton School District publicist, Alexis Trubiani. Starting with only a few thousand dollars, the team ended up with a total of over $60,000 in funding, in addition to opportunities from companies providing fieldtrips, sponsorships and experience in showcasing the regional champion robot.

With support from hundreds of friends, families and companies, the team left for Indianapolis. After experiencing some electronic difficulties at the start of the competition, they were able to work their way up through the ranks. Though they were not as successful in the national finals as they had been at regionals, another Clairton student, Garrett Santoline, earned an 8th place finish for his robot Mega Nuke out of the competition’s 48 robots.

After the competition, the team walked around showing off their medals. Having been overshadowed for years, “we finally got the recognition we deserved,” said Eliza. In just one short year, they had turned out two bots, gained national support from friends and companies, were named regional Grand Champions, and placed eighth in the nation. Eliza and the robotics team proved they could take very little and create something grand, showing the world that Clairton has plenty of room for more than one champion.

Published June 14, 2013