Five Lego League fifth-graders from Chukker Creek Elementary School earned a special Judges' Choice Award at a statewide tournament in Lexington on Saturday.

The “Lego Leaders” teams had reached the state event by taking first place in a region contest in January. That was an incredible story itself; the children were 22nd of 27 teams after the early rounds – only to come back and capture the Judges' Choice title.

The team members are Melissa Joyner, Annelise Hipps, Ethan Jones, Sophie Galan and Anabelle Clothiaux. Teacher Alecia Kinard coached the team, with Tim Arnold and Nonica Livingston serving as mentors.

The students finished 24th of 78 teams at the state championship. Yet, the judges saw something in the finals they appreciated a lot. They presented the kids with a trophy for their live presentations, their teamwork and their perseverance. This time the Lego Leaders were ranked in the mid-40s during the competition before moving up in the final rounds. Just one other team received the Judges' Choice award, Kinard said.

Ethan was still excited on the way home from the state contest on Saturday and won't forget the region contest, either.

“I never imagined we would be able to do that,” he said. “It was a blast today. We got to meet some other kids, passing out buttons we made” with the team name.

The students actually had to compete in five categories – robot design and performance, a research project, the core values of the national FIRST Lego League organization and teamwork.

The competition for 2013-14 was called Nature's Fury – which culminated with programmed Lego robots “battling” each other on their own “fields” they built themselves.

The Lego program is open to students in grades fifth through eighth, and “a lot of them were very big and tall,” at the state event, Annelise said by telephone afterward.

During an interview on Friday, all five team members had the same reaction when they joined the Lego League program when school started last summer.

“We thought it was just building Legos,” Sophie said. “We didn't think it would be racing and building robots.”

The FIRST organization also sponsors a robotics competition for older students – such as those at the Aiken High-based M'Aiken Magic program. Those competitions invariably require multiple repairs between matches

The Lego Leaders had to deal with those issues too during the regionals. A wire disconnected during one match, forcing the children to forfeit it. But they got the robot going again and started their amazing rally.

Kinard took over the gifted and talented program last year. She didn't just coach the Lego Leaders. Five other teams participated as well. Ironically, Kinard's own thoughts about Lego League mirrored those of the kids.

“I just thought it was building with Legos,” she said. “I was quite surprised, and it's been a lot of fun, much better than I could have expected. Our team has been wonderful.”

The mothers of Ethan and Annelise were just as thrilled with the results as their children. Nichole Jones was surprised when Ethan had expressed an interest in the Lego program.

“I saw what it all entails with all the engineering,” she said on Saturday. “They did really well. This is so rewarding. It's great.”

Like the other parents, Theresa Hipps was so proud of Annelise and the other children for the judges' award in recognition of how they overcame adversity.

“Watching them work together has been such a good experience,” Hipps said. “We saw them come together and how respectful they were of each other.”

In previous years, Livingston has coached teams at J.D. Lever Elementary School and East Aiken School of the Arts. She arrived in January to help the Lego Leaders as another mentor.

“It was very exciting when they received the Judges' Choice Award,” said Livingston. “It's a big one, right before the top three awards.”

Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter.