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Rolling Meadows-based team wins national robotics competition
By Colleen Thomas | Daily Herald Staff

Members of the Rolling Meadows High School WildStangs robotics team celebrate their first place win at nationals last weekend in Atlanta.


Courtesy Mark Koch

FIRST Robotics co-founder Woodie Flowers, a MIT professor, poses with two sophomore WildStangs team members, Lizzie Friedman, left, and Alyssa Zielinski.


Courtesy Mark Koch

As parents await the Sunday night return from Atlanta of the Rolling Meadows High School WildStangs robotics team, the school sign flashes out an appropriate welcome.


Colleen Thomas

Many small teams worked on the overall project, including one made up of senior Jacob Mandozzi, left, freshman Jacob Wachlin and senior Brian Korves.


Courtesy Mark Koch

This is a group shot of the Rolling Meadows WildStangs robotics team that took first at the FIRST Robotics Competition in Atlanta.


Courtesy Mark Koch

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Published: 4/21/2009 1:10 PM

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The WildStangs robotics team continued its winning tradition in a big way by taking first place in a national competition.

The Rolling Meadows High School-based group brought home the trophy from the weekend tournament, the FIRST Robotics Competition, in Atlanta.

"I've never felt so happy. Everything we had worked toward finally paid off," said team member Alyssa Zielinski of Arlington Heights, a sophomore.

More than 100 supporters waited in the rain Sunday night for the team's bus to roll into the high school parking lot. After a two-hour delay, it arrived with a Rolling Meadows police escort to an impromptu celebration.

"They were psyched and they were exhausted," said Sharon Rybarczyk of Rolling Meadows, a volunteer who traveled with the team on the five-day trip. The annual robotics competition draws teams from the U.S. and countries around the world, including Brazil, Israel and the Philippines. Student-designed robots must complete certain tasks to win points - in this case, to scoop up 9-inch balls and try to land them in trailers pulled by opponents' robots.

The WildStangs competed in 17 of the two-minute matches during the tournament.

"We were the only one out of 350 teams that went undefeated for the entire weekend," said Mark Koch, team leader and a faculty member at the high school.

While most of the 50 team members attend Rolling Meadows, a handful come from Wheeling High School, one is from Prospect High and two are home schooled. The name comes from the Rolling Meadows and Wheeling mascots, Mustangs and Wildcats.

Rolling Meadows High School will recognize the team at an assembly next week.

"This is a huge honor for our school," said Charles Johns, principal. "The robotics team has been a source of pride for the school and the community. We get lots of attention from this award."

Koch, who has been with the team since it started 14 years ago, says he is working toward a White House invitation. The WildStangs also won nationals in 2003, and last year the team tied for ninth place. It has never finished below the top 10 in the championships.

"The whole idea of this program is to mimic the excitement that goes on with athletics and make learning and science and engineering every bit as much fun as it is to become a great athlete in a sport," Koch said.

Students have spent three hours a day since January preparing their robot and strategies. They work with mentors at Motorola Inc., which has sponsored the team since its inception.

Rybarczyk became involved when her son joined and stayed on after he graduated three years ago. "There's something addicting about it," she said. "You get into it because you're doing something with your kids, but they leave and you stay."

Koch says this team has the largest group of seniors ever, but he is confident the younger students will step up next year. "I'm hoping they grow and fill the shoes of these graduating seniors," he said.

Zielinski is among those planning to continue. "I know this will help me in the future," she said, adding that lessons in teamwork and problem solving will help her in any career.

And, "I have friends from all over the country and all over the world now," she says.