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OHS auto students earn spot in state finals

Oxford High School seniors Josh English (left) and Mike Doell are heading to the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
March 27, 2013 - Not all the glory in high school is attained on the football field or beneath a stage spotlight.

Sometimes glory is found covered in grease and sweat beneath the hood of a car.

Oxford High School seniors Mike Doell and Josh English are hoping to secure their glory during the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition.

"It's very exciting and there's lots of opportunities for scholarships," Doell said. "I was hoping I would make it. I wanted to last year, but didn't make it. This year, I got there."

"It feels pretty good," English said. "I tried hard and put my best effort into it."

Doell and English were among the top 10 two-person teams from across Michigan who scored highest on the competition's written qualifying exam taken on-line back in February.

"I suspected that Mike Doell would place because he's been performing at an outstanding level for quite some," explained teacher Dan Balsley, who heads the automotive technology program. "He's been really applying himself to the program and scoring well on the (certification) tests."

"Ever since I (started) the program during my freshman year, I enjoyed getting my hands dirty, solving problems and fixing stuff," Doell said.

English, on the other hand, was more of a surprise to Balsley. "Truthfully, I didn't have my eye on him," he said.

That's because, according to Balsley, English isn't the best student, in the traditional sense, when it comes to things like finishing assignments on time.

"But he's naturally brilliant," he said. "Whenever we're having class discussion, talking about problems, he has a very sharp mind. He's able to diagnose things quickly. He's very bright and has a natural aptitude. He pays attention and he's picked up a lot, but he doesn't necessarily show that the way some of the other students do."

English was actually the top-qualifier among the 19 OHS auto students who took the Ford/AAA qualifying exam.

Doell and English will compete against teams from nine other schools in a hands-on competition scheduled to take place April 24 at the Macomb Community College (MCC) Expo Center in Warren.

They will diagnose and repair a variety of electrical and mechanical defects (i.e. bugs) purposely placed in a Ford vehicle. Repairs must be made with the highest quality workmanship in the lowest total time.

The team with the fewest demerits for workmanship and the best combined score for repair time and written exam will be declared the winner.

Thousands and thousands of dollars in scholarship opportunities to various technical colleges and universities are up for grabs.

Those opportunities are good for a person like Doell who plans to build a career in the world of auto repair.

After he graduates OHS in May, he's considering attending MCC for a year, then transferring to Ferris State University to pursue a degree in automotive service management. Following college, he wants to work at a dealership for a little while.

"Eventually, I'd like to open my own shop," Doell said.

He's got a good start on his future career considering he's already obtained state and national certifications in engine performance, suspension and steering, brakes, electrical and heating/air conditioning.

Doell currently works part-time at Complete Auto Repair in Oxford.

Following OHS, English plans to continue his education at the University of Northwestern Ohio to earn his degree in diesel technology, so he can work on semi-trucks. He's got one $500 scholarship right now, so he's hoping to earn more at the Ford/AAA competition.

"Only $19,500 to go," English said.

In his spare time, English enjoys restoring cars and selling them.

"I like doing hands-on work," he said. "I like to diagnose (a problem), find out what you need to do to fix it, then do those steps. When you see the end result, it makes you feel good."

From driving off-road vehicles to visiting the Woodward Dream Cruise every year, if it's got an engine, English is interested.

"I've been a gear-head since I was a little kid," he said.

Sending students to the Ford/AAA state finals is certainly nothing new for the OHS automotive program.

"We've been doing the competition since 1987 and I think we've gone every year except for maybe two or three," Balsley said.

Why does this program produce students who consistently place in this competition's top 10 year after year?

"I push them hard," Balsley said. "I have high expectations and I believe I'm driving performance through those high expectations."

To him, it's not all about spending time working under the hood.

That's why 50 percent of his class takes place with students seated at their desks, listening to lectures, watching demonstrations and training videos and doing written work.

"I demand they do book work in the classroom," Balsley said. "Nobody enjoys that as much as actually working on the cars, but it's important for them to develop those skills, so they're able to pass the certification tests and understand diagnosis procedures and repairs in the lab."

"I'm trying to give them the theoretical information that forms a foundation for them to become better at diagnosing vehicle problems in the lab," he continued. "For me, it's not just good enough if you know how to replace an alternator, you have to know how the alternator works and why it isn't working the way it should."

Balsley believes this strong classroom component is what gives his students an "edge" when it comes to the Ford/AAA competition.

"A lot of places don't do that," he said. "It's easier not to push the kids. It's easier on the teacher. It's easier on the students. Everybody's happy. You just run them through and the pay is the same regardless.

"But I push the kids because I want a certain level of knowledge and expertise. And I seem to be able to get that. Somehow I'm able to inspire them or motivate them to the point where they'll do (what's required) and start pushing themselves."

"He definitely has an amazing program," Doell said. "If you pay attention and do the work, you can definitely learn a lot."

"It's a pretty top-notch program," English said. "(Balsley) runs a pretty tight ship. He's got a lot of weight on his shoulders, but he manages to keep his head above water."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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