Hundreds of students from across East Tennessee will gather in Powell for a regional tournament this month, but they won’t be scoring goals or making tackles.
Instead, students from KCS and other school districts will be participating in the 2019 Top Wrench competition, which tests the skills of CTE students in a variety of challenges related to the auto repair industry.
Founded in 1991, Top Wrench is designed to foster teamwork and technical skills for students who are interested in pursuing an auto-related career after high school. Program director Maria Richardson said that while interest in CTE-related fields has grown in recent years, the auto repair industry needs more workers.
The competition, she said, not only offers networking opportunities, but provides a community for students who may not be interested in activities like band or sports.
“I think they enjoy being around other students who share their interests and their passion, and they get to interact with businesses … so they can possibly make connections with future employment opportunities,” she said.
Students compete in six categories:
Engine Start, in which competitors work to fix a “bugged” engine;
Computer Control, using scanners to diagnose an engine problem;
Pit Crew Challenge, a timed, NASCAR-style wheel-changing competition;
Welding Fabrication, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate welding skills;
Custom Paint, a judged contest featuring pre-made pieces that demonstrate paint skills; and
Valve Cover Race, a soapbox-derby style race using modified engine valve covers.
James Miller, a senior at Gibbs High School, participated in last year’s Pit Crew competition, as part of a team that earned a third-place trophy. He’s part of a Maintenance and Light Repair course at Gibbs that’s taught by Rick Honeycutt, and said it’s one of his favorite classes because it relates to his interests.
And when it comes to career role models, he doesn’t have to look far. Honeycutt worked for 37 years in auto dealerships, starting as a Mercedes technician and working his way up to supervisor at a Toyota dealership before making the shift to teaching.
Honeycutt said that for some students the class will provide a foundation for a good career. But even for students who don’t work in the auto field, learning the basics of maintenance “could save them a lot of money in their lives, just doing the small things.”
That’s part of the appeal for McKenna West, a Gibbs senior who enjoys using computer systems to diagnose engine problems. While she doesn’t expect to work on cars as a career, she knows the skills will come in handy later.
“I enjoy the class because it allows me to learn how to do stuff myself so when I get out of high school and something on my car breaks, I can just buy the parts and fix it myself instead of spending an arm and a leg on the parts and labor,” she said.
This year’s Top Wrench competition will take place on Oct. 31 from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Crown College.
Tyrell Ragland comes from a family of basketball players, but the West High School senior chose football at an early age.
That’s good news for West. The team is off to a 7-0 start this season, and as they prepare for a highly-anticipated showdown with undefeated Powell High School on Friday, Ragland has become one of its most important leaders.
“We’ve got four freshmen starting on the varsity,” Coach Lamar Brown said during a recent practice. “And Tyrell and the other seniors … have really taken a young football team underneath their wing and really guided and directed them and showed them what this football program is about.”
Ragland plays left tackle at West, and his football career may continue beyond high school. He’s received offers from schools including Culver-Stockton College and Mississippi Valley State University, the alma mater of former NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Asked about his leadership philosophy, the offensive co-captain emphasized the importance of being responsible for your own actions, or your own “20 square feet” of space. Once you understand yourself, he said, then you can figure out how to lead others.
“Because everybody doesn’t handle situations the same way,” he added. “So you have to know your players, you have to know your brothers, you have to know your family … to figure out what would help them and make them better.”
After finishing 4-7 last year, West opened this season with a dramatic overtime win against Bearden, and hasn’t looked back since. The team is averaging more than 28 points in the first half of its games and is currently ranked 4th in the Knoxville area by PrepXtra.
Ragland said the turnaround has grown out of the team’s commitment to playing together as a family, and that sense of unity is part of what drew him to the sport. While his father and his siblings always loved basketball, Ragland said he enjoys the physicality of football and the sense of brotherhood.
But while his success on the field gets most of the attention, it’s not the only place where Ragland stands out. He’s a leader in West’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and his goal is to eventually become a teacher and coach.
Ragland cited the example of assistant coach Nate Martin, who is also a social studies teacher at West. “He will push you until you get it. He will encourage you to finish … He’ll tell you all these stories, and it just inspires you to do good and do better,” he said. “That’s what I want to do for kids in high school, kids in middle school … is help them find a way in life that they can succeed.”
The senior is already having an impact in the classroom. Amanda Sharp, a social studies teacher, had Ragland in a class last year, and said she has looked to him this year to help manage one of her larger classes, adding that “kids will … follow his lead.”
Sharp emphatically agreed that Ragland would be a good teacher, not only because of his aptitude for math but also because of his ability to relate to students.
“I’m so excited for him to become a teacher and see the relationships that he can form with kids,” she said. “Because I know that he’s going to be able to change some lives.”
In fact, that ability to relate to his teammates is already paying dividends. Ragland acknowledged that he’s not someone who leads with tough talk or a raised voice, but said that when a teammate is struggling he tries to help them figure things out.
After one recent game, he said, a teammate was frustrated by their own performance. “I told him … we all have bad games. Even the best players in the world have bad games, but they’re going to find a way to fix it and that’s what you’ve got to do.”