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RHS, THS rocket teams advance to nationals

Russellville and Tharptown’s high school rocketry teams will be blasting off soon to compete in the American Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest rocket contest, May 14 at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va.

Russellville rocketry team members include juniors Seth Burns and Carrie Ruth Jackson and sophomores Carson McCalpin, Dalton Ridge and Shiloh Willis.

“They had a couple setbacks, but they were finally able to tune the rocket in to get the results they needed,” explained RHS rocketry team sponsor Gabe Willis. Willis said the team works together really well and have a good time along the way.

Burns said among the challenges that must be faced are severe weather conditions, including wind constantly changing direction even on the best of days.

Shiloh Willis explained how the team persisted despite discouragement along the way.
“When our rocket failed on the last launch one day, we were really worried about the likelihood of having good, qualifying flights, but we dug in and pushed through the adversity and succeeded with our rebuilt rocket.”

Team Mentor is Tracy Burns.

Tharptown rocketry team members include Jaret Abarca, Presley Laster, Bernardo Castillo, Angie Chavez, Kylee Beard, Destin Martin, Jessie Mitchell, Christian Franco and Danielle Cassel. Tharptown team sponsor Marsha Inmon said it’s an honor to be one of the top 100 rocketry teams in the country.

“The team has worked really hard to get to this point,” explained Inmon. “They have spent many hours after school perfecting their rockets. This is Tharptown’s fourth invitation to the national fly-off.”

Inmon said the team has improved a lot over the years, with the first year’s competition ranking around 35th, the second bringing an improvement to 24th and this past year’s ranking all the way up at ninth place.

“I am so excited for them. They’ve worked around the clock to get to nationals this year,” added Tharptown’s other rocketry team sponsor, Lynsi Bragwell Fincher, a math teacher at the school. “Although this is my first year to be involved with THS’s rocketry team, I have already seen how brilliant and dedicated they are. I am looking forward to seeing them shine at the National Fly-Off in May.”

Laster, a junior, has been with the team since it started in 2018, so this will be her third trip to nationals.

“Tharptown is truly blessed to be a part of the national competition four years in a row,” Laster said. “We’re really excited to be returning to Washington D.C. this year.”

Castillo, a senior and team member since 2019, said it’s been difficult to get launches logged because of weather, but a dedicated team effort made it possible to achieve their first goal, qualifying for nationals. “Our next goal is to win.”

Eighth-grader Angie Chavez is experiencing her first year on the team. “It was nerve-wracking to decide if we should call our last launch of the day, right before sundown, a qualifying launch,” Chavez noted. “As a team, we decided to take a chance and use it as a qualifying. That launch helped us get a low score to qualify for nationals.”

About 5,000 students from across the country compete each year. Middle and high school students design, build and launch model rockets, as well as receive the opportunity for other hands-on experience in attempting to solve engineering problems.
One hundred and one teams from 27 states qualified for this year’s competition. Finalists will compete for $100,000 in prizes and the title of national champion. Winning that title includes an all-expenses paid trip to London for the international finals.

In this past year’s national competition, RHS had two rocketry teams, and both placed, RHS Team One ranking fifth and RHS Team Two placing 35th.

“The students are dedicated, detailed and committed, and their hard work has really paid off,” said Willis. “They have an engineering mindset. They’re all great kids, and they’re going to go far in life.”

THS Team One placed ninth in the 2021 national competition. THS Team Two was the sixth alternate of the 615 teams that competed for one of the 100 national slots and ultimately did not get the opportunity to compete in 2021.

Rocketry has continued to be of special interest in Franklin County ever since the Russellville team won the international title in 2015.