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Lindsey Bark
Cherokee Phoenix

KENWOOD, Okla. – In less than a year, Kenwood Public School formed a robotics team and qualified for the VEX Robotics World Championship.

All Cherokee Nation citizens, the Kenwood Public School team qualified for the state tournament in February and then became state runners-up in the VEX Robotics State Championship in March.

Eighth-graders Aaron Smith and Greyson Hansen, seventh-grader Josiah Sapp and fifth-grader Blake Smith represented their small Delaware County community on a big stage against competitors from around the world May 8-10 in Dallas.

Kenwood competed in the middle school division among 78 teams and ranked number 42 at the end of the three-day tournament after competing in 10 matches. They competed in the skills competition where the objective was to score points by making their robots gather and clear yellow balls from a corral, shoot them into a box and hang the robot itself using a built-in hook. 

“You have to make sure that (the robot) shoots or pushes,” Aaron said. “If it can push, and not shoot, your objective would be to get it under the bar next to the goal. It gives you two points. If you want to make it hang, it will be an extra six points. If you can shoot, you will aim at the blue box and it will be six points. A high hang will be an extra 10 points. There’s five yellow balls on each side of the corral. If you clear out the corral you get five points, as well.”

Coach Marty Matzenbacher, known as Mr. Marty by the students, said he was proud of the team and how well it did in its first year of robotics.

“I was very proud,” Matzenbacher said. “Being a first-year group of kids that didn’t know much of anything about robotics learning how to make these complex machines; there’s a lot of different parts, being able to maintain them, and seeing that they could do that well and drive, it was cool to see those kids drive.”

Matzenbacher said that it’s important for Kenwood to offer opportunities like robotics as a part of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

“Sports isn’t the only hope of what you may do in the future,” Matzenbacher said. “They can use their brains and it provides a tremendous amount of opportunities. If I could, I would start them in first grade in robotics and start building them up and these kids will learn this whole process and be ready to go out there and see the world, and the opportunities will be there. The scholarships are phenomenal in this.”

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Greyson said the experience of being at the world tournament was “cool.”

“I thought it was cool because I got to see a bunch of other countries that I probably won’t ever go to in my life,” Greyson said. “I got to meet some people and they were friendly. At first I felt almost anxious and then I got used to it.”

The Kenwood team represented the Cherokee Nation and was one of several tribes at the tournament.

Greyson added that competing at the level they were at was different.

“Sometimes competing was kind of hard, but we got over that challenge pretty easy,” he said.

Greyson and Aaron have since graduated from Kenwood and will attend high school in the fall while Blake and Josiah will remain at Kenwood.

Matzenbacher said he expects more students to be interested in robotics next school year.

“I would love to get fifth- and sixth-graders involved right away. I think we’ll have more kids now,” he said. “This whole community’s behind this; that’s the amazing part. It’s not sports, but man it’s amazing to see how they support these kids in this. It’s just an opportunity and they’re happy to see it.”

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This article was first published in the Cherokee Phoenix