Andrew O'Donohue and Josiah Dempsey headed to Hershey in April 2018 without many expectations.
The pair, students at Berks Career and Technology Center, were on their way to the SkillsUSA state competition. SkillsUSA is a national career and technical students organization that, among other things, holds annual contests where students can show off what they've learned.
O'Donohue and Dempsey were entered in the mechatronics category. It was the first time competing for either, and in fact the first time any students from BCTC had competed in the field. They didn't get a chance to compete at the district level because there weren't enough teams to round out the field.
"We were really just trying it out," O'Donohue said of that first competition. "Just for the heck of it."
"The first time was just like, 'Let's see how we can do,'" Dempsey added.
The contest was half written exam and half hands-on practical exam. They were tested on general knowledge, symbology, math, assembling an electrical system and other skills.
The boys, both now 19-year-olds and from Fleetwood, felt good about their performance. But as the winners were announced, being read from third to first, their spirits sank.
They had hoped to crawl their way into the third spot, but hadn't. They figured that was it.
Then, the first-place team was announced. It was O'Donohue and Dempsey.
"It was definitely, 'Did I hear that right?'"
The team's success didn't stop there. They went on to take home the national title that year. And this past year they followed that up with a third-place finish at nationals.
Both boys graduated this spring and each headed off to college this fall, O'Donohue at Widener University and Dempsey at Rochester Institute of Technology. They figured their SkillsUSA days were behind them.
On Dec. 5, they found out that wasn't the case.
They were asked to take part in a conference call with officials from BCTC. That's when they were told that, thanks to their performances at the national level, they had been invited to try out for the world contest.
"When I didn't hear anything about it at nationals, I thought we'd never hear about it again," O'Donohue said, explaining that teams that medal at nationals get put on a roster for potential invitations to the world competition. "I was pretty shocked."
The world competition will be held in 2021 in Shanghai, China. To take part, O'Donohue and Dempsey have to submit an application and resume, as well as letters of recommendations from their college professors. If they're accepted, they will take part in 18 months of training and have to win another competition before being named to the world team.
"It's not like a guarantee we'll make it," Dempsey said.
Signing up is a major commitment. Dempsey said it would likely mean pushing off college for a bit, as the training could entail traveling abroad to get a taste of international competition.
Their teachers at BCTC think the pair, if they chose to go, will undoubtedly find success.
"I think they deserve the invitation," said Alan Blackburn. "They're great students."
Charles Strickler said he's always thought O'Donohue and Dempsey were special, and is glad to see others are recognizing that as well.
"It's kind of like with your own kids, you think they're going to be the best," he said. "But you have a little bit of bias because they're your kids. This is a little overwhelming, but I'm in awe of them."
Blackburn said the pair are go-getters, the kinds of students who always wanted to do more and be challenged. Stricker said they have a great blend of technical skills and drive.
"They won't give up," Stricker said.
In O'Donohue and Dempsey's minds, the key to their success is that they don't take themselves too seriously. It started at that first contest, where they just decided to give it a shot and have fun. It's a mindset they've kept.
"During competition we're just joking and making fun of each other," Dempsey said. "We have a running joke where we say to each other, 'You're a bad engineer, I don't like you, I don't respect you.'"
It's funny because it's so far from the truth. The pair obviously get along, and each has an incredible amount of talent.
"I think the sky's the limit for both of them," Stricker said.