The robotics team from Cristo Rey Jesuit High School does not have a fancy banner to hang in the pit area where teams tweak their robots, and the team also doesn’t have a big flag to be waved, as is the custom, before rounds of competition begin. But the Los Clasicos have something else: a tremendous sense of accomplishment.
Cristo Rey Jesuit is a small Catholic school in Minneapolis. The school’s accomplishments are many, including this: since the school was founded eight years ago, every graduating senior has been accepted to college.
Cristo Rey’s robotics program is in its fifth year, and the team has taken big leaps since Schuyler Troy became the main advisor three years ago. At that point the team was barely a blip on the robotics screen. Their rise was topped by a 21st-place finish among 36 teams at the recent MSHSL FIRST Robotics state championships at the University of Minnesota’s 3A Arena at Mariucci.
It was the first appearance for any team from Cristo Rey at a state tournament. Sophomore Kya Phillips became the school’s first individual state champion when she won the Class 1A 400 meters at last year’s state track and field meet. Jericho Sims, a 2017 graduate, started 11 games and played in all 34 games as a freshman on the University of Texas men’s basketball team.
And now, the robotics team has made history.
“I thought today was pretty amazing because I didn’t think we would get to where we were,” said junior Alexis Constantino Lopez. “My expectations? Honestly, I set them kind of low because I thought these teams are pretty much better than us. I’m happy where we finished.”
Troy teaches Advanced Placement computer science principals and physics at Cristo Rey Jesuit, where the student population is 84 percent Latino/Hispanic and 11 percent African-American/African immigrant. He graduated from high school in 2004 in Fayetteville, Tennessee, where he was a member of his school’s robotics team.
“I had a lot of really good experiences with robotics in high school,” he said. “When I got to (Cristo Rey) and heard we had robotics I was excited and offered to help. That kind of morphed into taking leadership with the team. Two years ago was my first year with the group and it was kind of a rough go; the team was still young and I had not been involved with FIRST Robotics since I was in high school. And when you’re a student you don’t necessarily see how the sausage is made, with all the logistical things behind the scenes.”
In Troy’s first year the team finished near the bottom in a regional competition. Everyone was disappointed, but it was part of a growth process. Last season provided what Troy called a big leap.
“I had a better idea of what I was doing, the volunteers had a better idea of what we needed to do,” he said. “We finished the robot on time, which is always a nice accomplishment. We came to the regional and finished 27th out of 60 teams, I believe. For us, coming off the previous year that was a huge leap. It made the kids feel good, it made it really good for recruiting because we could say in school, ‘Hey, look at the improvement we’re making.’ ”
This season was strong from the start, with the team completing its robot early and having time for testing and modifications. As an added bonus, many of the current team members are in their third year with the program.
“We have a really solid group of juniors who have been with us since they were freshmen,” Troy said. “We’ve developed a really strong relationship and the nice thing about them having that experience of finishing last and then climbing forward is that they’re really, really incredibly humble about how good they can be.”
When the team competed at a regional this year, hoping to advance to state, they were confident but not cocky. Part of their philosophy was to have fun, do the best they could and walk away feeling good about it.
“And we won, a lot. We kept winning matches,” Troy said. “We kept looking at our number go up and up and up in the ranks.
“It was such a huge leap forward. Thinking back to two years ago, it was such a great experience, it was really moving for me. It was a really fun experience for me to get to see them have the kind of fun that I had when I was in robotics. It’s always fun anyway, but it’s more fun when you’re winning.”
After the MSHSL tournament ended, the Los Clasicos gathered for team photos. Everyone smiled as they received congratulations from members of other teams.
“It’s been exciting, a cool experience,” said junior Consuelo Contreras. “It’s my first year in robotics and it’s the first year we came to the championships, so it was kind of interesting and cool and unique.”
Alan Flores, one of the third-year team members, said, “Me and Alex (Lopez) came to robotics in our freshman year. Right off the bat we started off pretty low, getting the lowest ranking in our first year. The second year we did a little better, made more progress, we climbed up like 10 more ranks. This year we came up to like seventh place in the rankings. The way we progressed and the way we learned from those past years really led us to show more leadership towards the new people, and it helped us a lot to improve and learn. To us, it just feels amazing to be here and see how much we’ve grown.”
During the state tournament, Cristo Rey Jesuit activities director Rob Carpentier was inundated with texts and emails from staff members and students seeking updates on the team’s progress. The team’s success has raised its profile,
“Now I’m thinking about how do I buy a trailer for this team? How do I make the accoutrements and aesthetics look like the rest of the teams that are here,” Carpentier said, talking about things like a team banner and flag. “I don’t ever want them to feel like they’re doing without. They’re a great bunch of kids.”
Upwards of 40 Cristo Rey students took part in the robotics program this year, and that number is sure to rise in the future.
“It’s inspirational,” said junior Henry Perez. “We don’t give up. At the very beginning we don’t always get it perfect, but we take the things we learn and we grow from it.”Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn