Havre Daily News
For Havre High School seniors Craig Shaw and Jason Verploegen, fixing things has always come naturally - and they do mean always.
"Every time something broke, that's what it was - give it to the kid," Verploegen said about his favorite pastime on the farm he grew up on. He's been working on parts of cars and other gadgets all his life.
And the same goes for his partner, who remembers that when he was younger, "I'd make my mom read me electronics books," Shaw said.
The two met their freshman year in the school's beginner shop class and have proceeded to take every class in the program. They've each bought their own beaters and fixed them up, learned all they could about automobiles and received $20,000 scholarships at a state troubleshooting competition in May.
Now they are going to put all that knowledge to an even bigger test when they travel to Washington, D.C., Saturday for the Ford/AAA National Troubleshooting Competition. The competition gives two high school students from each state the chance to win $300,000 each in scholarships and show themselves to be the nation's best high school student mechanics. They will be judged on a written exam and a hands-on competition in which judges plant faulty parts or other bugs in each team's car. The team that fixes all the car's problems correctly in the shortest amount of time wins.
This is the first time in recent history a Havre team has qualified for nationals, a testament not only to these students' know-how but to the wisdom of their teacher, first-year HHS automotive department teacher Merle Hoerner.
When Hoerner applied for the teaching job in Havre, Superintendent Kirk Miller said, he told his potential employers, "In the future, I plan to get kids competitive at the national level." No one knew he meant the immediate future.
Given his background, it shouldn't come as a surprise.
Hoerner has been a Snap-on tools instructor, then ran a private diagnostics training course that took him all across the country before he settled down in Havre.
Even an advanced gearhead like Shaw says he didn't have the knowledge to do well in a state competition "until Mr. Hoerner came and then he taught me all this."
All the teams were chosen for the national stage through state competitions. Shaw and Verploegen took second at the Montana competition, but deserved first, they said. When national competition officials contacted Hoerner saying that the Billings winners weren't interested in going, it was a prophecy fulfilled, Hoerner said.
"They shoved it into our lap, and we were more than happy to take it from them," he said.
"These guys got first place, the highest in the written exam, which got them a huge trophy" Hoerner said of his star pupils' performance at the state competition. "They got second place in the hands-on competition, which got them another huge trophy."
So now they're constantly under the hood of a white 2005 Ford Focus, which was donated to them by Havre Ford for the week, trying to cram information about every nut, bolt and bulb. They didn't get the go-ahead call until two weeks ago, while every other team at the competition has been eating and sleeping Focus for the past month.
When they open the hood and turn the key of another Focus on Monday morning, absolutely nothing will happen. The teams will then have three hours to check anything and everything on the car to find and fix a possibility of 22 bugs, grab a judge and go for a test drive. Turn signals, dome lights, wiper blades, fuses, electrical lines, starter plugs and everything in between will need to be examined for defects and fixed if possible.
The students admit it's a daunting task to learn everything there is to know about a car in less than a week, but think they may be up to the challenge. For a test run on Thursday, Hoerner planted 18 bugs on the car; the students found them all in less than an hour.
"Somebody has to win," Verploegen said. "Why not us?"
"It's a little scary, but if we get in the top half I'll be thrilled," Shaw said. Then, thinking better of it, and with a smile, he said, "But we're planning on doing a lot better than that."