Academic Final Four: Construction management students take second in MCAA event

Team scores ‘huge accomplishment’ in mechanical proposal contest against peers from across country; ABC team eighth in U.S.
​Jerry Poling | April 1, 2024

A UW-Stout team made it to the coveted Final Four — not the NCAA’s March Madness basketball tournament but the MCAA Final Four for construction management students.

The six-person team didn’t just get to the big show — like the hoops tournament just four teams qualified after preliminary rounds — but came home with hardware. They reached the championship game, so to speak, at the Mechanical Contractors Association of American conference in Orlando, earning a second-place trophy in the national collegiate competition.

“This was a huge accomplishment by the team. We were up against some tough competition, and the work our team put in over the seven months was evident. I’m extremely proud of the UW-Stout MCAA team,” said team member Hans Stelpflug, a senior from the southeastern Wisconsin village of Colgate.

Along with Associate Professor Dean Wirtanen, left, UW-Stout MCAA competition team members at the national event were Hans Stelpflug, Carter Hamilton, Conner DeTienne and Jacob Kallas.
Along with Associate Professor Dean Wirtanen, left, MCAA competition team members at the national event were Hans Stelpflug, Carter Hamilton, Conner DeTienne and Jacob Kallas. / Contributed photo

Meanwhile, another student construction team took eighth place in the U.S. at a separate competition in Florida.

After making the Sweet 16 in 2023, taking 14th place, the MCAA team members put their hearts into doing better in this year’s challenge, which was to submit a request for proposal involving mechanical contracting for a real project at the Kansas City Zoo.

Although disappointed in not taking first, Jacob Kallas, a senior from Thiensville, was “completely overjoyed by the experience I received, both in completing the actual proposal and attending the conference, and thankful for the opportunities and standings that were a result of our work.”

UW-Stout took second behind California Polytechnic State University of San Luis Obispo, Calif. The other two finalists, Ball State University from Muncie, Ind., and McMaster University from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, received honorable mention.

UW-Stout team members present their project at the MCAA competition in Orlando.
UW-Stout team members present their project at the MCAA competition in Orlando. / Contributed photo

MCAA is a national trade association representing mechanical construction, plumbing and service firms.

Also attending were Connor DeTienne, a senior from Grantsburg, and Carter Hamilton, a senior from Appleton. Team members Sam Tornow, a junior from Eau Claire, and Ross Zillman, a senior from Eau Claire, did not make the trip.

“The team worked very hard on their report and presentation. I’m very proud of them,” said Associate Professor Dean Wirtanen, their adviser, who attended the conference with them.

Project began in September

The team began work on its proposal in September, submitted it in December and was notified in January that it had made the Final Four. After meeting weekly the past two months, their final, 10-minute presentation was March 19 in Orlando. 

They also had to prepare for follow-up questions by the judges. “While both were nerve-racking, we diligently spent the past few months preparing, and it ended up paying off,” Kallas said.

They were required to provide a detailed proposal for installing mechanical equipment during the zoo project, accounting for numerous aspects such as safety, equipment travel paths, site utilization, phasing and more.

Team members each receive a signed football from Jim Kelly, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, after taking second place.
Team members each receive a signed football from Jim Kelly, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback, after taking second place. / Contributed photo

“There was limited access on the site, and equipment had to be set on multiple levels of the building. We approached this as a team and used real world examples from our various experiences to generate feasible solutions,” Stelpflug said. “Having project specific information about safety, site logistics and a detailed schedule were very important to place in the final four teams.”

Team members said their on-the-job experiences through UW-Stout’s Cooperative Education and Internship Program contributed to their MCAA success. Stelpflug worked with Catalyst Construction in Milwaukee in 2022 and Boldt Company in Eau Claire in 2023. Kallas worked in 2022 at Gabor Design Build in Germantown and 2023 at JP Cullen in Milwaukee.

After their presentations, teams also met with judges — professionals in the mechanical contracting industry — to get individual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals and presentations.

The UW-Stout team received $5,000, which will go toward the students’ education expenses. They also each received a signed football from and met NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly, formerly of the Buffalo Bills.

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Also, Stelpflug received a tournament MVP award — most valuable presenter — and a $500 gift card.

“The way our team worked together to develop a successful proposal was a key component to our success this year,” Kallas said. “If I didn’t join this team, I would have never had the opportunity to learn from my teammate’s experiences and knowledge. We all came into it with different skillsets in different areas, and we all grew and excelled because of one another.”

Team members said they benefited from networking opportunities at the conference and meeting fellow construction management majors from around the country. “It was amazing to hear how the three other teams approached some of the issues and challenges within this year’s RFP,” Kallas said.

The seniors in the MCAA student chapter plan to pass on the knowledge and lessons they learned from the experience to other members of the student chapter to hopefully help them return to the MCAA Final Four in 2025.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me was the amount of construction experience I gained from joining this competition team. Over the last two years, I was able to learn so many things about the mechanical industry and further my knowledge of writing construction proposals,” Stelpflug said. “While our construction courses provide a solid foundation for students, this competition team allowed us to dive deeper into the mechanical industry and understand how important the mechanical scope is on a project.”

Members of UW-Stout’s ABC competition team who traveled to Florida were, from left, Lance Wallis, Noelle Urlaub, Jeremy O’Connor, Ellie Becker and Garrett Johnson.
Members of UW-Stout’s ABC competition team who traveled to Florida were, from left, Lance Wallis, Noelle Urlaub, Jeremy O’Connor, Ellie Becker and Garrett Johnson. / Contributed photo

Eighth place in ABC competition, plus a first

Another UW-Stout team competed at a different competition in March in Orlando sponsored by ABC — Associated Builders and Contractors. The team took first place in the estimating division for a project at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center.

Out of 25 teams from around the U.S., UW-Stout took eighth place in the overall competition, which included contests in project management, quality control and safety. Many of the competing schools were from large universities, such as Purdue and Michigan State. Clemson University took first place.

The team included Ellie Becker, of St. James, Minn.; Riley Boushack, of Chili, Wis.; Dak Doyle, of Hayward; Connor Hemme, of Andover, Minn.; Garrett Johnson, of Duluth, Minn.; Jeremy O’Connor, of Preston, Minn.; Noelle Urlaub, of Eau Claire; and Lance Wallis, of Dresser. Boushack, Doyle and Hemme did not attend the event.

After submitting their proposal, they completed a five-hour challenge in Florida and were one of nine teams to advance to the final stage.

"We had great coordination and teamwork in aligning each of our sections of the project to complete the proposal. During the presentation and step three, this team did a great job responding to the judges’ complex questions with efficiency and ingenuity,” said O’Connor, who noted that UW-Stout improved from 17th place last year.

O’Connor is vice president of UW-Stout’s Student Construction Association.

The team is part of the ABC National Student Chapter Network.

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