World domination: Southold Robotics Team RICE 870 places second in FIRST Championship in Houston

Hugs, tears and silly string.

This was the scene Sunday after Southold Robotics Team RICE 870 arrived at Southold High School. Southold Police and Southold and Greenport Fire Departments led the team bus down Main Road with sirens blaring and lights flashing as they returned home from Houston, Texas, where they and their partners clinched second place in the FIRST Championship, in which more than 600 teams from nearly 60 countries competed.

Waiting for them at the school was a crowd of their loved ones holding balloons and handmade signs, cheering, waving and taking photos and videos. The visibly emotional students — teary- and bleary-eyed, running on little sleep to catch their early flight — were embraced. Once they were assembled for group photos, some parents and younger siblings in the crowd doused them with silly string.

Even community members with no relatives or friends in the robotics program, such as Kate Eisenberg, came out to congratulate the team comprised of Southold and Greenport students who made their community proud.

“We think it’s so cool that the robotics team did as well as they did,” she said. “It’s a small town, we want to make sure that they know that we support their success and will continue to encourage them to reach for the stars.”

Twenty-four hours earlier, Team RICE — the acronym stands for respect, integrity, compassion and equity — closed out their most successful year ever as championship finalists. Saturday marked their first foray into the Einstein field, where the eight alliances, each comprised of four teams, who clenched their respective divisions compete in the final matches of the four-day event.

“When we made it to Einstein we kind of said to ourselves ‘no matter what happens, we already made history for this team, we’ve done it,’” Sofia Gillan, the club’s vice president and drive coach who directs the driver and controller operating the robot, said. “And then for us to keep winning on Einstein and keep proving to ourselves that we deserved to be there, it meant a lot to all of us.”

“We beat teams that we admire, it was a really cool feeling,” added Flynn Klipstein, the team’s human player who introduces which game pieces the robot must pick up during each game onto the field, said. “These were teams that we always watched their videos and would try and emulate, and we beat them.”

Each year, before they enter competitions, the students of the Team 870 design and engineer a robot, build it from scratch and program it to move and perform tasks necessary for competition gameplay. This year’s competition, dubbed “Charged Up,” required robots to pick up cones and cubes, then place them on a series of nodes at three different heights, which have different point values. The Southold team began building their robot and practicing back in January. They worked daily after school into the late evening hours to prepare for their victory in the FIRST Long Island Regional No. 2 last month, and their dedication continued as they prepared to take on the world.

“We’re always telling the kids that effort equals results and this program really pushes the kids to a new limit,” said Christine Schade, one of the team’s advisors. “I’m so proud of them for reaching this level. There’s just no words for this.”

After winning their division and then fighting their way through five playoff matches on the Einstein field Saturday, the Southold team and their partners — Team 5460 from Lapeer, Michigan and Team 125 from Revere, Massachusetts — faced off against an alliance consisting of teams from Madera, California, Ventura,California and Champaign, Illinois. Duking it out for the best two out of three, the Southold alliance lost two games, the second by one point.

”It was a lot of silence, just everyone thinking about it,” Brian Schill, the team’s controller, said of the moment after the second loss. “Everyone came down and was there for emotional support. Other teams from other alliances came and said how great we did and how proud we should be … We are proud but there’s still a hint of sadness.”

”We’re also sad to lose some great seniors on our team this year,” technician Ava Rose added.

Among those graduating seniors is driver Declan Crowley, who despite feeling elated Saturday night, was visibly overwhelmed with varied emotions Sunday.

”It’s hard being a senior,” he said. “It’s nice to leave on this note, but one point is hard.”

”It was a big accomplishment to make it to the world finals,” he added. “But obviously it’s hard for us, going down, but we can’t hang our heads on it. What we did was great, so we got to be proud.”

While some of the students felt this “90-10” mix of pride and disappointment as Declan described it, their advisors and parents expressed pure admiration.

”These kids are unbelievable,” Ms. Schade said in between hugging parents. “They were calm, cool and collected the whole week … they just stayed focused.”

According to FIRST, which stands for “for inspiration and recognition in science and technology,” the competition brought together approximately 50,000 attendees, from the students competing to the spectators cheering. Approximately a dozen Southold parents, including Lynette and Ian Crowley, Declan’s mother and father, were present in Houston Saturday. The couple compared the spectacle of the final matches held in an indoor stadium to “a Taylor Swift concert” or a wrestling match.

”It’s a phenomenal experience and they’re going to remember it for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Crowley said. “And this team is going to be infamous. They’ve now set the bar.”