NEW PALESTINE — Half of the New Palestine High School (NPHS) gym was set up for head-to-head robotic team competition Saturday while the other half was set up for robotics teams to show off their skills. The school’s auxiliary gym, right across the hall, was also full of team tables, or pits — a place for squads to get their robots ready for one of the biggest competitions of the year, the New Palestine High School Robotics Invitational.

“This tournament is like a precursor to the state tournament,” said Dave Post, head of the NPHS robotics program. “Some of the top teams in the state are here competing.”

Two Hancock County schools, NPHS and Greenfield-Central High School (G-CHS), were part of over 60 different schools from around the state taking part. The Dragons had five different robotics teams competing while the Cougars sent six different teams.

Nick Kerkhof is the head of the G-CHS robotics program and said he really appreciates these types of tournaments, where great teams are competing locally, getting the schools ready for state.

“Overall, team-wise, I think we’re doing pretty well here,” Kerkhof said. “We’ve got two teams who’ve been able to win tournaments throughout the year, and that means we’ve already qualified for state.”

Kerkhof has three different G-CHS teams ranked in the top 25 and said it’s been great watching the kids and program grow over the past several years.

“We hope we can send a couple of teams to the world competition in Texas if we can do well enough at state, where I think we’ll end up with four or five teams competing,” Kerkoff said.

Brayden Gray, a G-CHS senior and part of team 11-15-C, said competing this late in the season when most teams have figured their robots out is great.

“Just like the New Palestine teams here, we know a lot of the teams at this event really well and that makes it so much fun,” Brayden said. “People call this tournament a ‘state simulation’ because all the really good teams in the state are here competing, but we think it’s just fun to go up against the best as often as you can.”

Brayden noted that his team probably didn’t have a chance to win the invitational, but the event gave them a chance to prepare for the state tournament since they’ve already qualified for state in the skills section.

“My first year in this, when I was a freshman, we were terrible, but now we really compete and have grown a ton,” Brayden said. “This year, we are doing amazing and are headed for good things.”

Joe Wilson, a sophomore for a NPHS team called “I’m a Banana,” said he enjoys being able to operate the robot while also picking up a few ideas how to do so from other teams.

“Our team won our very first competition this year and a month ago we won another one against one of the best teams in Indiana, so we know we can compete,” Joe said.

He said their team goal is to beat the top NPHS team called “Boogie Woogie” which his older brother, Ben Wilson, is a team member.

“Basically, whoever wins this tournament is in really good shape for state because this is really a good, good competition,” Joe said.

Joe and Ben’s mother, Jennifer Wilson, was enjoying watching both her sons’ compete and said she’s proud of her boys and their teammates for working so hard to be successful at what can be a difficult venture — building and operating robots.

“The teammates really bond and they also end up helping the other teams they’re competing against,” she said. “I love watching them help the other programs because they’ll be competing and someone will say, ‘Hey, I need some help,’ and the kids will be there or say, ‘Here, we’ve got what you need.’”

The Roncalli High School Rebels sent three teams to compete at the NPHS invitational where members noted as a private school they don’t get as much support as most of the public schools competing. However, team member Lola Keitzke, a freshman, said they had a blast attending the NPHS invitational, win or lose.

“Last year, the school was able to win the spirit award, so we’re hoping to be able to do that again,” she said. “This is a real nice setup here and we’re having a good time.”

Post said it’s great when a school steps up and hosts an event like the one held at NPHS this past weekend, but noted it takes an army to pull off hosting an event.

Some 40 volunteers showed up late Friday evening and at the crack of dawn Saturday morning to set things up for one of the last competitions of the year before teams head to the state tournament.

“It’s a lot of work for sure,” he said.

Still, Post noted robotics is a special program and encourages more students to take part.

“I’ve coached football and basketball, and you really compete. But the kids in robotics, you compete but you also help the other teams out, and I can honestly say all these teams have great relationships,” Post said. “We have a great program going that really supports sportsmanship and that’s worth seeing.”