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The students from the Spring Grove Area middle school rocketry team were nervous as they prepared to launch their rocket at the Team America Rocket Challenge — dubbed the world's largest rocket contest.

"At the beginning, it was pretty nerve-wracking," said sixth grader Hailey Graff, 11. 

Up until the launch, the team was still debating which of the two rockets they'd built to use in competition, but "we banded together," said sixth grader Alexander "A.J." Velez.

The team placed ninth out of 102 teams in the national competition May 18 in Virginia — also winning the title of top team in the northeast.

"We all just kind of jumped up," said seventh grader Finley Ritenour, 12, describing how it felt to be one of the top 10 teams. She said her teammates didn't have to force smiles for a photo because they were already smiling. 

And their coach, Brian Hastings, started crying, she said.

Their goal was to be in the top 25, which would give any rocketry team in their district a chance to compete in NASA's student launch initiative next year. That opportunity gives students the chance to design and build a high-powered rocket to take a scientific payload up a mile, Hastings said.

"Being in the top 10 was kind of beyond expectations at that point," he said.

More: Spring Grove advances to rocketry nationals with rookie team

One of the youngest teams in the competition — which this year expanded its  range to include sixth grade — the four York County team members didn't let it get in their heads. Finley said they "kept calm and didn't really think about how cool it was to be there."

They scored a 22.8 in their first launch, and in TARC a zero is a perfect score, Hastings said. The top 42 teams advanced to the second round, and that first round placed them in the 33rd position.

Only two teams scored lower in the second round, he said, and the sum of the two scores is combined for the winning total, he said.

"It was just luck," Hailey said, but no matter what happened, she said, her team would have been happy with what they accomplished.

The middle schoolers expected everyone else to have more experience, she said, but they had to hope for the best, and weekly meetings with TARC starting in October helped make them feel like pros, Finley said.

"I was very impressed with how encouraging everyone was," said Hailey's mother, Kallie Shrader, noting lots of good sportsmanship at the competition.

More: Spring Grove student wins title at York's Distinguished Young Women competition

The student team members will split their $6,000 winnings, leaving $1,000 to go toward supplies for next year's rockets, which several students have already started designing.

"The best way to do well is to learn from experience, really," said A.J., encouraging other students to give it a try.

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