The 10-year-old drivers from Yardley had been doing great: The self-powered car they had built from old bicycle tires, a cordless drill, and other odds and ends had worked like a dream in front of Odyssey of the Mind judges Saturday at Pennsbury High School.
Great, that is, until the chain fell off its gears. Mid-competition. On the gym floor. And everyone from driver Thomas Cherian to Pac-Man World genie Alex Kirk and Candylandia Marshmallow Brayden Naskiewicz had to swarm the contraption like a NASCAR pit crew at Daytona.
They were unable to get it moving again.
So it went for the team of precocious problem-solvers from Afton Elementary School, their make-or-break moment just one of many at the 2016 Southeast Regional Tournament. Hundreds of students, up to and including some high school seniors formed 127 groups who competed all day long at Pennsbury High for a chance to beat their peers and advance to the next round of the world competition.
"Come on, guys. Come on, guys," a little dude watching from a chair on the sidelines urged the Afton crew trying to set things right. Supportive? Not exactly.
"Scouting the competition," said Karansher Sidhu, 10, explaining why he and others from Southern Lehigh School in Center Valley, Lehigh Township, were watching the team from Afton do their thing.
The halls, gyms, and theaters in the two huge buildings that form Pennsbury High were packed with intense and creative minds - kids who had accepted a challenge, had worked for months with parent-coaches to come up with solutions, and were now vying for a win.
"It doesn't have to succeed," explained longtime Odyssey of the Mind judge Douglas Matz, 54, a school bus and motor coach driver from Sellersville. "Just be creative. That's what we're looking for. A creative solution to the problem."
For Afton, the vehicle was the team's solution to the following problem, one that Odyssey organizers called "No-Cycle Recycle."
Afton, one of 28 teams to tackle it, had to find a way to travel between two ecosystems, pick up an item from one, take it to the other, recycle that item, and then return it to the first ecosystem.
The Afton kids decided their ecosystems would be Candylandia, inhabited by a humanized marshmallow, and Pac-Man World, home to a wizard who could magically recycle what came his way.
The vehicle not only was powered by a cordless drill, but it also had a broom and dustpan operated by a manual lever. They swept up a wrapper in Candylandia, had it recycled in Pac-Man World, and returned it to the Marshmallow boy's home turf.
Who was the driving force behind this exemplar of engineering acumen?
The kids pointed afterward to Cherian, a slight guy wearing an Eagles shirt. But Cherian wouldn't take the credit.
"It was the team's idea," said the boy who had driven and operated the car with teammate Heeya Jagirdar until the unwelcome mishap.
Pennsbury's locker-lined hallways were abuzz with creative energy and resembled backstage at a play - kids slipped into costumes, fine-tuned props and inventions, fixed hair. Parents offered muscle or moral support until each group's turn before a panel of judges.
In one hallway around midday, a young girl hung around in a green sequin hat while another with a saucepan lid on her head and cape on her shoulders practiced opening and closing curtains that hung from a portable wardrobe.
Cooler bags stuffed with snacks lined the walls, as did moms and dads and gear.
"Andrew!" one woman shouted amid the din of kids hopped up on competitive juices and, in this case, junk food. "He's eaten, like, 20 bags of chips!"
Around dinnertime, the Afton kids got word that they did not score high enough to advance to the state competition.
"I think we did good," said Leeds, who narrated Afton's performance and shrugged off any disappointment.
"They are very happy to be here," said Amy Kirk, one of their coaches.