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Nature Coast students show skills under the hood at state auto contest

Nicholas Caldwell, left, and Gregory Bennis, both 17, practice May 1 on a Ford Focus at Nature Coast Technical High School before last Friday’s Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition in Sanford. They took eighth place.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Nicholas Caldwell, left, and Gregory Bennis, both 17, practice May 1 on a Ford Focus at Nature Coast Technical High School before last Friday’s Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills competition in Sanford. They took eighth place.

BROOKSVILLE

Nicholas Caldwell and Gregory Bennis have studied the 2009 Ford Focus inside and out, up and down, all as part of their schooling. Using a 2009 Focus loaned to them by AutoWay Ford of Brooksville, the Nature Coast Technical High School 17 year olds prepared for months for last Friday's state level Ford/AAA Student Auto Skills contest in Sanford. First, they earned high marks in a qualifying test. From those results, Ford Motor Co. officials selected the 10 top schools in Florida to compete, with the top two scorers from each school invited to compete in a practical exam.

And what a test.

Each team was given a Ford Focus with six hidden defects. "They start the clock and they have to fix them and drive them across the finish line," said Nature Coast automotive instructor Kevin Moglia, 52, who is assisted in the school's automotive workshop by Dan Murphy, 42.

Some of the problems may be as simple as a bad light bulb or as mysterious as an engine that will turn, but not start. "Most everything I saw last year was an electrical defect," Moglia said.

This is the third year Nature Coast has entered the contest. The first year, the students didn't qualify for state. Last year, two students competed at the state level but did not place.

This year, Caldwell and Bennis scored an eighth-place finish.

"I'm really proud of these guys," Moglia said. "I really am."

Caldwell and Bennis focused on the Focus for so long that they almost merged with the car. "I have that whole fuse box memorized," Bennis said.

Caldwell, who has been in the automotive program at Nature Coast for three years, and Bennis, a second-year student, had high praise for Moglia.

"Pretty much anything you got a question about, he knows it," Bennis said. "He's been a pretty good teacher,'' Caldwell added. "He's taught me a lot I didn't know."

Caldwell hopes to work with Mercedes-Benz, and Bennis is considering entering the military to work on helicopters or working at a car dealership.

The Nature Coast program prepares students for careers at a dealership or a repair shop. Some students go on to postsecondary institutions to acquire Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification or to become automotive engineers.

Moglia and Murphy were thrilled that Caldwell and Bennis scored well enough to compete at the state level. Moglia told them to "just go and have fun."

Murphy called the competition "an experience the kids are going to remember. One of these years we're going to make that trip to Detroit (for national competition)."

Moglia also wanted to send out praise and thanks to AutoWay Ford of Brooksville. "They have supported us for the last three years," Moglia said. "They've been tremendous."

Paulette Lash Ritchie can be reached at eduritchie@yahoo.com.

Nature Coast students show skills under the hood at state auto contest 05/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 9:10am]

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