Welding, electrical wiring, troubleshooting a small engine and calculating watershed runoff. Within a few hours, a team of four William Blount High School students had an opportunity to compete against the best students in the nation last month in all those types of agricultural mechanics.

For the third time in the past quarter century, Billy Coning’s students from William Blount took first place at the state level and competed at the national FFA convention, this year in Indianapolis.

“We finish second a lot,” Coning said, and in fact the team finished second at a regional competition this year.

The team part of the competition at the state level was something the William Blount students know a lot about: setting up an irrigation system, from plumbing to an electric timer.

“We know a lot about irrigation, simply because we do a lot of stuff here at the school with irrigation in our gardens and our greenhouses,” Coning said.

After the state win, William Blount had to replace half its team, because Wolf Dodson and Brentley Riddle had graduated.

Thomas French and Chase Tilley were joined instead by fellow seniors Connor Bright and Casey Smith.

Nothing can replace the experience of having previously been to a competition, Coning said, comparing it to practicing basketball without ever playing in a game.

“A lot of time it’s about problem solving, managing your time, working as a team,” the teacher explained.

“Employers are looking for team players able to think fast on their feet, and if they’re confronted with a problem be able to come up with a solution,” Coning said, and the competition shows much of that.

Because of the team nature of the competition, the students can’t have only one skill, and the four who went to Indianapolis each brought his own talents plus a team work ethic.

In William Blount’s Agriculture Biosystems and Engineering class, students learn to work with metal, wood, plumbing and electronics. That gives students an opportunity to find not only what they enjoy but also for what they have an affinity, Coning said.

The class also takes subjects such as chemistry and physics from the abstract to the real world.

At the national competition, the students had to complete a written test and a team activity, which this year involved identifying motor parts and servicing an engine with a water pump. In the 90 minutes for the team activity they also had to write a report about it.

“That was college-level material they were actually doing in the contest,” Coning said of the written exam. “Connor made a perfect score, and Thomas missed one question.”

Then each student alone completed five individual skills, with 25 minutes for each.

They performed a stick weld on two pieces of pipe, calculated slope and watershed runoff, wired a breaker for a MIG welder, troubleshooted a Caterpillar Skid Steer loader and assembled a small motor. Competitors not only needed to show their skills but also follow safety procedures or risk forfeiting points.

To prepare, the teens studied written tests from previous years and the Skid Steer manual, plus memorized formulas.

“It was rough,” Chase said, but still fun.

The William Blount team finished 35 out of 47 in Indianapolis. Coning noted that many of the top teams came from smaller high schools in agricultural communities, where most of the students take the ag classes.

Connor took Coning’s class this semester primarily to prepare for the competition, but it has steered him toward a potential career. “I really like electrical more than anything. I think it’s cool how it works,” he said. “I might want to go to college to be an electrical engineer.”

“I regret not taking more of these classes,” he said of his experience in the career and technical education program.

Thomas is definite about his plans after high school. “I’m going to be a diesel mechanic for Caterpillar,” said the teen, who grew up working with is dad on classic cars.

Casey, whose family owns a farm in Friendsville, likes hands-on work, too. “I’m thinking about going to Tennessee Tech in mechanical engineering,” he said.

Chase plans to have his own farm one day, but firefighting is in his immediate future. He joined the Friendsville Volunteer Fire Department last year and plans to attend the Tennessee Fire Service and Codes Enforcement Academy in Bell Buckle before heading to Walters State Community College to earn a degree in fire science. “I love being in the fire service, and I love helping people,” he said.

“If you don’t know what you want to do, this shop has everything,” Thomas said in the area where other students were working on projects.

As for Coning, Thomas said, “He’s an ag teacher, but he knows everything.” If he doesn’t know an answer, he’ll help a student find it and explain it. Before the competition Coning worked with Connor to develop an equation to calculate an amount of antifreeze needed.

“He’s irreplaceable,” Thomas said.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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