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Central High automotive students come home with second-place awards.

Central High School automotive students Jon Smith and Mike Bagarus rode back from the AAA Ford Competition April 14-15 in Orlando as second-place winners in the state.

"We were this close to first," said automotive teacher Steve Conti, holding his index finger and thumb a fraction of an inch apart. "But look where we came from, nothing to second place. We've never been to competition."

The contest was to debug a Ford Mustang that was infested with up to 20 glitches, from engine sensors to lightbulbs. The teams of two were given 11/2hours to find them all, fix them and drive the car over a finish line at 20 mph, Conti explained.

As second-place winners, each received scholarship opportunities and "a lot of confidence," Conti said.

The juniors became eligible to attend the event by taking an online test. The teams with the highest scores moved on to the state event.

Conti and parents Ron Ralph and Mike Bagarus Sr. accompanied the students. Conti said he stood at the sidelines, 30 feet away, cheering and chewing his fingernails.

Through the Central High School automotive program, students can earn Automotive Service Excellence certification with the full program or can work in the automotive field, if they are short the coursework necessary for certification.

Beyond certification, after high school students can study further to become ASE master techs, which can mean more money and job security.

"If you're an ASE master tech, you can go anywhere in the world and get a job," Conti said. "That carries a lot right there. That's their badge."

The automotive program has been in place for four years, serving more than 100 students a day. But, with budget cuts, it will not be offered next year. That is why this year's state win meant so much to Conti and his students. "I call it bittersweet," Conti said.

Cody Hasson and Tyler Yohn, Hernando High School seniors in Brian Phillips' class, also competed. They placed sixth.