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St. Mary’s Catholic School Principal Sarah Zook didn’t have any sort of expectation when she started a robotics competition program for students in 2018, but it has paid off so far.

Aquinas and St. Mary’s Catholic Schools brought three teams to compete in their first-ever tournament and had much success. All three teams shined in the Columbus competition earlier this month, however, its MonarchBots unit placed first. That qualified it for the Feb. 16 Nebraska FIRST LEGO League Championship Tournament at the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum in Ashland.

“They are very excited,” Zook said. “They’ve already started making improvements to their designs.”

This STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)-based competition featured 40 teams, grades 4-8, who had to solve problems using their creation and skills. Every team has three main scores: Core, project and robot competition. Each team builds a programmable robot, using Lego bricks, to complete certain tasks on a table-top playing field, according to information from Aquinas and St. Mary's Catholic Schools.

The robotics team is also judged on its core values and project presentation. During the core values judging, the team is given an activity to solve. The team is judged on how it communicates with each other and display elements of gracious professionalism.

The MonarchBots are Finley Zook, Isaiah Coufal, Colby Miller, Evan Hoelscher, Seth Hlavac, Noah Polacek, Paxton Zook, Dayne Jakub, Gunner Marushak, William Podolak and Landon Pohl.

These Aquinas and St. Mary’s students are under the leadership of Rodney Hoelscher, Christina Podolak, Ellen Ridder, Erin Marushak and Zook.

“With it being their first year out, I just really want to see them do the very best they can,” Zook said.

Zook and her husband, Shawn, along with their six children, relocated from Montana last year so their kids could attend Catholic schools in the Lincoln Diocese area. She was part of robotics teams there for a long time.

“I led groups of various levels for 10-15 years,” she said.

A majority of members attended the St. Mary’s robotics camp during the summer. Due to the interest among many students, in October, three robotics teams were created: the MonarchBots, The Saints (an all-girls team) and Mario’s Bots (an all-boys team).

Prior to the competition in Columbus, the students got to pick the brain of an expert. One student is a relative of J.R. Lyons of National Instruments, a producer of automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation software. The engineer graciously heard the three Butler County teams’ presentations and offered his feedback, according to Zook.

“He worked with them by doing a video interview,” she said.

All the local teams showed great promise during the Columbus competition, Zook said. She added she is proud of all of her students for their efforts, praising them all for their great ability to work together and not give up.

“I really just want them to be able to persevere; If they can struggle through a hard problem, I feel like they can just do about anything,” Zook said. “They all did really well … We have athletic competitions, but I think it’s good for them to challenge themselves academically, too. It just gets the kids so excited about the different careers maybe they never considered.”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Banner-Press. Reach him via email at

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Managing Editor

Matt Lindberg is an award-winning journalist and graduate of the University of Kansas.

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