Beyer robot defender of winning alliance, heads to world contest

Beyer High Iron Patriots turned an epic fail into a whopper of a win, and will be heading to Houston, Texas, to take on top teams from around the world.

It will be the Beyer robotics team’s second trip to the pinacle competition. Last year they won on heart, selected to go to the international contest because they mentored younger teams in Modesto. This year they won on moxie, elbowing away other robots to keep those teams from scoring.

“We were most effective at making other robots miserable,” is how team captain Hayden Ricklick put it. Among the robots they made most miserable was a top shooter destined for the final rounds. There, three-team alliances duked it out to shoot 5-inch Wiffle balls into a barrel and gather gears on a table, all part of the steam punk-style game designed for the 2017 FIRST Championship.

The Beyer robot, nicknamed Jack after team engineering mentor Jack Benenati, turned out to be a terrible shot. But he made an excellent guard.

“Unfortunately, while we were at the game, we couldn’t get it as accurate as we wanted to. So using the really very strong (base), and lots of traction in our drive train, we were able to prioritize playing defense against other robots,” Ricklick said.

In fact, other team members noted, Jack’s shooting score was 47th out of 48 robots competing. So the team made the best of what they had: a 107-pound rolling blocker and a ruthless driver. Vincent Benenati, son of the team mentor, was the ruthless driver.

Benenati laughed when asked if he normally drives that way. “No – I’m not as aggressive in real life,” he said. But behind the wheel of a robot, he was unstoppable.

“We were not necessarily able to get points ourselves. We were able to starve the enemy team of those points they needed to win,” Ricklick said.

The pivot to defense paid off. The team whose top shooting robot they foiled recognized a worthy opponent and chose them to be the third team in its ultimately victorious alliance.

“We fit well. They saw we were really good at doing something they couldn’t,” Ricklick said.

The 30-teen team — 27 boys, three girls — is filled with students in the robotics engineering program at Beyer High. Competing is optional, done through a club that meets after school, on weekends and over breaks, said team parent Eric Tobias.

“When you have kids working 20-30 hours a week on their own, that shows interest,” he said, taking a break from stirring spaghetti sauce for a fundraising dinner Thursday.

“It gives them so much experience,” Tobias said. “They get to build and touch and work with technology. During the competitions, things break and — it’s just like real life.”

The team has to do intense programming, but they also have to weld, drill holes, argue out decisions under pressure, work around glitches and recover from mistakes. They are among 460,000 students across all grades competing in FIRST Robotics competitions worldwide.

“It’s helped me with speaking, and just getting out there,” said Benenati, a junior. “It’s more than robots.”

The Beyer High team is fundraising to get to Houston. Find their GoFundMe page at

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin