With just six days to practice, three Grundy Area Vocation Center welding students placed in the top five at the Tulsa Welding School "Weld to Win" competition last weekend.
Nick Lerma, senior at Morris Community High School, took first place; Tyler Yard, senior at Morris, took third; and Zach Sackman, senior at Minooka Community High School, took fourth place.
The competition was not a planned one for GAVC welding students, said instructor Jim Cebulski. They came to Cebulski a week before the event and asked his thoughts on them competing at the Tulsa, Okla., competition for senior welding students.
"The rest of the (competitors) had been practicing for awhile," Cebulski said. "The blue prints were out online for months,"
The kids had six days to prepare and they had to learn welds they had never done before to be able to compete, he said. In addition, the students had to pay to compete themselves and travel 10 hours to get there. But given all of that, they still wanted to go.
"I said OK, we'll hit it as hard as we can before you go," Cebulski said.
The students practiced as much as possible during class and after hours.
"These kids work as hard or harder as any top football team in town," Cebulski said. "The only difference is they go out and make a living doing it."
Sackman said they pushed to go so they could get the practice in before their Illinois SkillsUSA state competition in April. Of the 20 open spaces in the welding competition at the state competition, 17 are GAVC students. The students had to take a written test to qualify to compete.
All three of them went to state last year, and this year they hope to beat their previous placements.
In Tulsa, there were 255 competitors from 16 states. They had one hour to complete a welding project based on a blue print, and they had to use specific welds and positions.
Lerma credited his first place win to a little bit of luck and his teacher.
"I owe it all to Mr. C. We're really blessed to have him as a teacher," Lerma said. "There are not a lot of other schools like this."
Lerma won a $15,000 scholarship to the Tulsa Welding School, a wire feed welder, and an auto-darkening welding hood. Yard and Sackman won quarter scholarships, plus a starter welding pack that includes a hood, gloves, glasses and a jacket.
Yard, who took third, said he appreciated getting to see all the different welders from around the country in one place.
"I put in a lot of time and a lot of hard work for it," he said.
Sackman said the best part was when the three of them got to take the stage for their top five wins.
"They count down the top 25 and we all got nervous because they got to the top five and we hadn't gotten called. We were sweating bullets," Sackman said.
When all of their names were called in the last five, and they all got to be on stage together, Lerma said it was the "coolest feeling."
"Every time this happens, I'm more and more impressed, and they deserve it," Cebulski said.
In November, some of the students competed in the 2013 Local 597 Welding Competition. Lerma took first place there, Sackman third and Kaidon Hibler of Gardner South Wilmington High School took second place.
These three students and more from the GAVC welding program will compete next at the SkillsUSA competition April 11-13.