SYRACUSE -- In a world of spinning and speeding robots stacking rings on a goal post while trying to keep others from scoring, it is as if Syracuse High School's robot is actually connected to Tanner Nielson's hand.
At least that is how Justin Frost, the high school's adviser to the VEX robotics club, describes the scene.
"He places his rings, throws the other team's (rings) under the ladder, then does loops and spins and defends where he's supposed to be," Frost said. "He messes around and goofs around and he's so good at it. It's amazing to watch it."
In its first year of existence, the Syracuse High's VEX robotics club has become the envy of not only other clubs in Utah, but also those elsewhere in the region after winning first place at recent competitions in Hyrum, Las Vegas and West Jordan.
Now the team is preparing for upcoming tournaments in Florida and Texas.
"The world championships (in Florida) will be very competitive," Frost said. "But I have a lot of faith in my boys."
The team is looking for donations, which can be dropped off at the school, to help pay for the trips.
If someone had told the teens three months ago that they would be the top team in the state, they might not have believed it.
"It's pretty amazing how, in the first year, we've won three first-place trophies already," said John Manalo, 17.
John, Tanner Nielson and Jamison Nielson -- who are not brothers but get asked if they are almost every day -- did not know anything about what goes on at the VEX robotic competitions at the start of the school year.
In fact, after their first tournament in January, they made so many changes to their robot that it did not resemble their initial attempt. They took the best parts of all the robots they saw and combined those ideas into one.
"I was really surprised at how far we've come and how the changes helped so much," said Jamison, 17.
"Before, the robot's arm used to have rubber things that would suck up rings from the inside, but you couldn't descore rings, so now it has a hand that clamps down from outside."
VEX is a robotics design system. In competitions, teams build and program a robot to complete a task revealed each year.
This year's task is to stack rings on goal posts spread around the 12-foot-by-12-foot playing field. Two teams form an alliance against two other teams, and at the end of the time period, the side with the highest point total wins.
Teams earn points depending on how many rings they put on the goal. They can also descore their opponents' rings by taking them off the posts.
"It's a battle," Jamison said. "People are trying to take off what you've put on, and you're trying to take theirs off."
The first 20 seconds is the autonomous period in which the robots are totally dependent on their programming to score points.
Jamison, the programmer, is under pressure because a bonus is awarded to the alliance that has the most total points at the end of the autonomous period.
Following that is a two minutes of driver-controlled play, which is when Tanner takes over.
"I've had a lot of practice," 18-year-old Tanner said. "They say a lot of it comes from me playing video games."
Syracuse High also has a girls VEX robotics club in its first year. However, it has not found the same success as the boys team.
Senior Angela Underwood and sophomores Kyla Johnson, Mikaela Charlesworth and Lauren Edwards are the inaugural members of the club. With three of them coming back next year, there is already a lot of excitement for the competitions.
"They can't wait for next year," Frost said. "In April, we'll find out what next year's competition is, and the girls are ready to get started for next year."
All three boys will graduate this spring -- Jamison and Tanner plan on going to Utah State University, and John plans to attend Weber State University -- and say they did not expect to have as much fun as they have had in the club.
"It's a lot of fun, especially when you're like me and not exactly athletically gifted," Tanner said.
"Now I can just make my own robot that does whatever I want it to do."
For a detailed look at the VEX robotic competitions, click here.