Brandon Figueroa from Blessed Pope John XXIII in Scottsdale (left) and Gabriel Nield from St. John Vianney in Goodyear (right) were the two finalists in this year's annual Diocesan Spelling Bee, Jan. 28 at St. Francis Xavier School. Figueroa went on to spell “memoir” to win the bee. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)
Brandon Figueroa from Blessed Pope John XXIII in Scottsdale (left) and Gabriel Nield from St. John Vianney in Goodyear (right) were the two finalists in this year’s annual Diocesan Spelling Bee, Jan. 28 at St. Francis Xavier School. Figueroa went on to spell “memoir” to win the bee. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

With three returning competitors, an untold number of newcomers and at least two second-generation “bee” participants, outperforming the top spellers from 27 Catholic elementary schools in the Diocese of Phoenix was no easy task.

All the students had already proved their merit in school-level competitions held in recent weeks. That feat earned them a chair at the diocesan spelling bee Jan. 28 at St. Francis Xavier School.

Among the newcomers was Manuel Foseca, the first representative of Loyola Academy — a junior high school on the Brophy College Preparatory campus.

Fr. Robert Bolding, president and rector at St. Mary’s High School, who pronounced the word for each speller, was also new to the competition.

He often found himself putting the words in a sentence and sharing their definition to help students determine their spelling. Only St. Gregory’s Rachel Orr, fifth grade, and Queen of Peace’s Gabrielle Romero, seventh grade, ever asked for the word’s language of origin.

Most top spellers from each school were in the fifth to eighth grade, but third-grader Carlos Encinas managed to out-spell fellow St. Catherine of Siena students and fourth-grader Audrey Wood represented St. John Bosco students in Ahwatukee.

Wood comes from a family of spelling fanatics. Her grandfather enjoyed watching the Scripps National Spelling Bee on television every year until his death the night before St. John Bosco’s spelling competition. Her father won his school-wide bee as a fifth-grader at a Catholic school in Michigan and her mother was the fourth-grade champion speller in her school.

Noah Gordon, a seventh-grader at Most Holy Trinity, also has a family line of good spellers. Gordon’s aunt, who also serves as his godmother, won her school spelling bee in Phoenix 37 years ago.

This was Gordon’s first time advancing to the diocesan competition, but his fourth time in his five years at Most Holy Trinity as a contender in the school-level bee. Although he wasn’t squirmy, he did misspell the word, which eliminated him from the competition.

Miranda Todd, the returning eighth-grade champion from Sacred Heart in Prescott, finished fifth after misspelling “rapacious.” Lauryn Carter, a fifth-grader at Annunciation Catholic School in Cave Creek, bowed out next after mixing up the last four letters of “evidentiary.”

That left three boys — two eighth-graders and two-first-timers — battling it out for top diocesan speller. Eighth-grader Cody Kazmierczak from Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Scottsdale, who emerged as last year’s winner, then misspelled “portraiture” in the eighth round.

A steadfastly silent audience watched eighth-grader Brandon Figueroa from Blessed Pope John XXIII in Scottsdale and sixth-grader Gabriel Nield from St. John Vianney in Goodyear duke it out another seven rounds or so with each of them taking turns missing their second word for the win.

When Figueroa correctly spelled “unattainable,” a possible end to the spelling bee again emerged. Without the aid of the sentence or definition, Figueroa went on to spell “memoir” to win the bee.
The winner said he didn’t have a strategy or study plan. In fact, he said he didn’t study. Somewhere between a natural command of the language and a detailed mind — Figueroa likes building and designing things — turned out to be a winning combination.

Audiences may see Nield, the runner up, back next year. This was his first spelling bee and he studied devoutly including en route to the diocesan competition.

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