April 04, 2012 - It happens like clockwork every spring.
Oxford High School's automotive technology program sends two talented students to the state finals of the Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition.
This year, it's senior Kyle Feeney and junior Paul Strong who've earned the right to represent the Wildcats April 25 at the Macomb Community College Expo Center in Warren.
"I think we have a really good shot at it," said Feeney, who plans to pursue a career in mechanical engineering.
Feeney and Strong 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.
Out of the 29 OHS students who tested, Strong finished at the top of his class.
"I really enjoyed telling him because of the expression on his face," said auto instructor Dan Balsley. "He almost seemed panicked. He was very surprised."
"I really didn't expect it," said Strong, who plans to someday work in auto body repair and fabrication. "I didn't think I would do all that well."
Even Balsley admitted he was surprised that Feeney and Strong, both of whom are second-year auto students, made it to the state finals.
"I had my eye on a couple of other students," he explained. "Ironically, the students that I was watching ended up in third and fourth place. These guys edged them out."
Strong and Feeney will compete against teams from nine other schools in a hands-on competition that requires them to diagnose and repair a variety electrical and mechanical defects (i.e. bugs) purposely placed in a 2012 Ford Fusion.
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.
"I've always felt it was the best competition," Balsley said. "It's been well-organized and well-run for years."
It's also the most challenging contest, in his opinion, because it demands such a high level of expertise from students.
"That's why we keep going back," Balsley said. "I think it's a real test of student achievement."
From the excitement of Competition Day to the thousands upon thousands of dollars in scholarship opportunities, Balsley sees the whole experience as a "great motivator for the students."
"It's good for everybody," he said. "It's good for the (auto) program. It's good for Oxford High School. It's good for the kids. Everybody wins."
When asked for a prediction on how Strong and Feeney are going to fare in the state finals, Balsley played it close to the vest.
"It's way too early to tell," he said.
Balsley is hoping the Skalnek Ford dealership in Orion Township, which has always been "real supportive in the past," will loan them a 2012 Ford Fusion to practice on.
"After I get a little bit of time with the guys working on the car, then I'll have a better feel for how we're going to do," he said.
Balsley's program has been sending students to the Ford/AAA competition for approximately 22 years.
"It's nice to be able to walk into the room at the state finals and know people by name," he said.
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.