It wasn’t exactly how they planned it, but Cherry Hill High School East robotics team members can still call themselves world champions.
Attaining that status was also a fitting conclusion to the Joe Dilks’ era, as the club’s advisor is likely to step aside after a decade-long run of success capped by the virtual championship.
The VEX Robotics World Championship was to have taken place in Kentucky late last month, but the coronavirus pandemic forced its cancellation. Officials decided to hold a virtual tournament, thanks to its access to a global database of all teams that would have been involved.
“They had 720 teams compete from 50 countries,” Dilks explained. “They decided to have a virtual tourney, and to stream it. Every team signed up still entered, and they have records of every match of every previous tournament for all teams.
“They took the 13 best matches for the year, and basically ran a complete virtual tournament, and used these matches as a means to keep score.” he added. “It was a bracketed tourney: eight divisions of 90 teams, and first came the divisionals. When you won your division, you moved onto the playoffs for the worlds.”
East’s J-team — dubbed the Jersey Devils — ended up winning their division, and then in the playoffs based on a further simulation, were declared victors.
When the Sun first visited East on Feb. 11, Dilks was keeping the club focused on tournaments that were looming: a competition at the school in late February that was a proxy for the state championships scheduled to be held at The College of New Jersey in early March, and then VEX for the world championship.
According to Dilks, performance at the state level determined spots for the worlds, and he believed 10 or 11 spots were reserved for New Jersey-based teams. East ended up with a pair of teams that made it to the state finals, and so both were entered in the worlds.
The Devils, comprised of seniors Ben Starkman and Susrut Dube, along with sophomores Eric Gershon, Duwon Ham, Aryan Pradhan, William Yang and their robot, 2616J, won the championship.
“Clearly this doesn’t actually indicate they would have won had they competed, because there are so many variables in real-time competition,” Dilks said. “But what it does indicate is that they really were one of the best teams in the world.
“In our storied and successful history, that team, and that robot, is the best competition robot that’s been produced by East robotics.”
Although it was already known to administrators and his students that Dilks wanted to take a big step back from his role beginning whenever the next school year commences, he won’t completely be divorced from involvement in the short term.
“The next step will be to get a new advisor,” Dilks said. “My plan was to be there just for another year to help out, so the new person can get his or her feet wet before taking over the club. But if they don’t, I don’t know what that will mean.”
Knowing that victory was declared within a simulation instead of the real world, added a bittersweet note to Dilks’ eventual departure.
“It’s disappointing to me to not see them compete, to really see how far they could have advanced, because they really had a legitimate shot to challenge for the title,” Dilks lamented.
“It’s still a feather in their cap even though it was a virtual tourney. It’s still a nice accomplishment. I’m proud to have been associated with the kids and with the club.”