"Nearly two years removed from my competition season now, I still remember the feeling. We were brand new, no one saw our success coming. I think on a lot of levels, we didn’t see it either."
In our first year, The Gongoliers could be best described as disorganized. Fun, amazing, and disorganized. Nothing against us, even though some of us had experience in FLL and FTC, none of us had competed on the FRC level. Most of us didn’t have any robotics experience at all, aside from being technologically inclined. We had a rather large roster the first week. By the second week, our roster had decreased by nearly 1/3, and even after that, there was a slow trickle of kids who stopped coming to meetings. But there were 15 who stayed, and a core group of kids who were there every day. Those kids are the reason for the Hall of Fame.
Our biggest mistake going into our first year was our lack of seriousness. We had a lot of laughs, but sometimes it was more counterproductive than anything. For the Bryant 2014 event our first year, one of our team members Pat made a hilarious pamphlet in his spare time giving us all funny background stories. When we brought it to competition, someone from another team commented that it didn’t make us seem like serious competitors. It should have been obvious, it was a joke, after all, but none of us had thought about it on that level. If robotics taught me one thing, it’s that people take their robots seriously. I played soccer for 13 years, and at the high school level, the crowds have absolutely nothing on FRC. The atmosphere is addictive.
We were also very good at something I like to call active procrastination, or list making. We made list after list detailing who would do what, but it never seemed to work out that way. We spent an entire meeting filling up the board with names for the team one day. Believe it or not, The Gongoliers was the product of nearly an hour of “serious” thinking. Later, we learned that a gongolier was an actual thing; “a man with a strong voice and a noisemaker who walks through the streets of the village and announces the news.” Not just a clever combination of Mr. Gongoleski’s name and Mr. Coffey’s gondoliering.
At our first ever competition, the Groton event, we learned a valuable lesson; NO GREEN WIRE. On the first night, we were expecting to go, check in the robot, practice a little, and then go home. Then, it happened. Upon inspection, we were told that the green wire we had used was not allowed. Unfortunately for us, we had used the green wire to wire nearly the entire robot. It took us hours to fix. Instead of having a leisurely night of practice, we spent the entire time with about 10 hands in the robot chassis, frantically working to replace all of the green wire with regulation red and black wire that we did not have enough of. Even then, we had trouble finding what we did have. Our toolboxes were unorganized, we didn’t have a pit. If I remember correctly, the only workbench we had was the plastic table they provided for us. Without the generosity of other teams, we would not have even been able to fix the robot that night. That’s another thing about robotics, as fierce as the competition is, it is indeed friendly. Other teams want to see you succeed as much as they want to win. FIRST really stresses teamwork in their competitions.
Nevertheless, we were strong competitors that year. We had lofty goals for our robot initially, with hydraulics, and 100 other things we couldn’t afford. In the end, we settled on a robot that helped instead of one that could score big points. It turned out to be the right choice. We placed something like 39th out of 500 teams in New England, and won several awards including the Rookie Allstar at one event. Nearly two years removed from my competition season now, I still remember the feeling. We were brand new, no one saw our success coming. I think on a lot of levels, we didn’t see it either. We dreamed about it, sure, but realistically? Our cube of a robot with sharp corners and a sharpie drawn shark mouth didn’t exactly look like a mechanical masterpiece. If anything, we proved that efficiency doesn’t have to look pretty.
The team has come a long way since then. As a mentor, the first event my schedule allowed me to attend was the Bryant 2015 event. I was actually shocked at the appearance of our pit the second year. It was… neat. It had nice signs and bins for everything and the right color wires. It was downright professional, nothing like the rag-tag assemblage we went to that first competition in Groton with. And the robot had angles that weren’t just 90˚. I wish that we started The Gongoliers my freshman year instead of my senior year so I could have had more time on the team, but I’m looking forward to mentoring again during the 2016 season, and watching them grow even more.