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Smith, LaBarge to compete in state finals

Oxford High School seniors Mike Smith (left) and Alan LaBarge are one of 10 two-man teams headed for the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition next month in Warren. Photo by C.J. Carnacchio. (click for larger version)
March 26, 2014 - Some students excel in academics, while others find their niche in athletics or the arts.

But at Oxford High School, there's a fourth 'A' that allows students to shine and it stands for automotive repair.

Once again, OHS will send two students to the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition.

With tools in hand, seniors Mike Smith and Alan LaBarge will represent the Wildcats when the hoods go up April 23 at the Macomb Community College Expo Center in Warren.

"It feels pretty cool," said LaBarge, who's in his third year of Oxford's auto program. "It's a pretty big deal here."

"I'm excited," said Smith, who been in the auto program since his freshman year. "I think me and Alan will do really well. We've been around (auto repair) a long time and it's what we like (to do)."

Smith had the top score among the 25 OHS auto students who took the Ford/AAA qualifying exam earlier this year. He was 10th in his class last year.

The fact that these two qualified for the state finals was not news to Auto Instructor Dan Balsley.

"I kept thinking it would probably be one, if not both, of them," he said. "So, I wasn't too surprised this time. Both of them are very smart. They are stand-outs in their classes."

LaBarge and Smith will compete against two-man teams from nine other schools in a hands-on competition during which they will have 90 minutes to diagnose and repair a variety of electrical and mechanical defects (i.e. bugs) purposely placed in a 2014 Ford Fiesta SE with a four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission.

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 and move on to the national competition.

Balsley expects Smith and LaBarge to do well at the competition because they complement each other.

"Alan is very bright," he said. "He has a good mind for diagnostics. He likes to figure things out.

"Mike has a lot of practical ability. He's a good mechanic in the lab. He can do diagnosis and is very strong in the hands-on (work). I think because of Alan's desire to figure things out and Mike's ability in the shop, they both have pretty good strengths."

Both LaBarge and Smith indicated that auto repair is in their blood having grown up watching and working with their fathers under the hood.

"I like knowing my way around a car and being able to fix it," said Smith, who plans to pursue a career as either an automotive technician or diesel mechanic.

Although he enjoys fixing cars, LaBarge is unsure if he'll pursue it as a career.

"I hadn't planned on it, but I don't know – I might," he said. "My initial plans were to go into engineering."

For now, the focus is on winning the state finals.

"I think they have a real good chance," Balsley said. "They're both class leaders. They're both able to take care of difficult situations in the lab and I think they're certainly as able as any team I've taken (to the state finals) in the past. They're both strong in their knowledge and abilities."

To the best of Balsley's recollection, Oxford has been participating in this competition since 1987 and students from his program have earned spots in the state finals almost every year.

Between now and the finals, Smith and LaBarge plan to spend as much time as possible with Balsley in and out of class, practicing, studying and honing their already considerable skills.

Balsley said he needs to contact a dealership to see if he can borrow a 2014 Ford Fiesta for training purposes. This will help familiarize Smith and LaBarge with the vehicle's systems and operation.

The goal is to get them "as comfortable with that car as they would be with their own, so when the competition starts, they don't panic," Balsley explained. "There's no pressure because they know what to expect when they pop the hood."

"I've heard from past students that it does take away some of the anxiety," he added. "As soon as they pop the hood, they feel like they're right back in the shop, practicing with me, and that takes away a lot of their jitters."

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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