When welding instructor Oscar Rushton started South Aiken High School’s program five years ago, he charted out a number of lofty goals for the Thoroughbreds that included being among the best in the state and representing Aiken County and South Carolina nationally.

Rushton was clear from the outset that he and others would supply instruction and direction, but the students themselves would need to provide the drive and work ethic.

Since that time, the Thoroughbreds have done exactly that, culminating in the program’s first state title victory in March, according to a news release from Aiken County Public Schools.

This week, South Aiken High welders traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to participate in the Skills USA Nationals.

“This is a fairly new program, and our students have worked extremely hard. They have put in a lot of time and effort to have made it this far,” Rushton said. “They have displayed tremendous skill, and this competition will really show what we do here in the welding program. We try to push as hard as we can to ensure these students have what they need to succeed.”

South Aiken participated in a regional American Welding Society competition this season at Midlands Technical College, and several students represented the Thoroughbreds at the Skills USA South Carolina competition held at the Lexington Technology Center.

In Lexington, students from across South Carolina competed in three levels: welding individual, welding fabrication and welding sculpture. When the competition concluded, a three-man team consisting of South Aiken High students Trevor Kaney, Henry Woodward and Pedro Lopez had captured the state championship in welding fabrication.

“Finding out we won first place was a great thing for these students because that opens up the possibility of competing in the world welding competition,” Rushton said. “It’s going to be a great opportunity for our students. A lot of industry and business representatives will be there, and they will want to see how the students compete at this advanced level. It can really open up a lot of career opportunities for them.”

Rushton said the Thoroughbreds – who will be asked during the national competition to collaborate in welding a piece together from a blueprint they may or may not have seen before – have been able to progress during state-level competitions the past three years, leading to this year’s victory in the welding fabrication category.

“In three years competing at state, we have placed four times, which is really good for a relatively new program like ours, but it’s all been possible because of the hard work of these students,” he said. “The students have to have buy-in and commitment. If they do not have that, then nothing works, but these students have done what they needed to do to be the best.”

Henry Woodward, a rising senior who plans to attend welding school after graduation in 2019, says what he had considered a hobby (fabricating grills) has developed into something more.

“Welding is just something that I really enjoy doing,” Henry said. “The key in competitions is trying to stay calm because when you get nervous you start shaking, and if you do that, your welds will look bad. I just try to imagine that I’m welding back at home.”

Pedro Lopez, meanwhile, a member of the South Aiken High graduating Class of 2018 who wants to join the workforce and perhaps work on pipelines in the Midwest, says he was introduced to welding by his grandfather.

“My grandfather used to weld, so I was always helping him with whatever he needed; and then I started welding for myself and it took off from there,” Pedro said. “We didn’t place top three last year at state, so I came back more determined; and I was able to accomplish one of my goals when we won state. Now we’re going to nationals, and hopefully we can perform well there and maybe even win first again.”

Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.

A native of Aiken, Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.