In hindsight, the warning signs of a long spelling bee were fairly clear.
With 27 of State 48’s top elementary school spellers gathered in one room — in this case the KAET studios at Arizona State University’s downtown campus — there’s bound to be some stiff competition. They already out-spelled K-8 students in the classroom, school, district or diocese equivalent and even the county or region. All told, they spelled better than Arizona’s roughly 1.15 million public and private elementary school peers.
Seven students made a return appearance to the Arizona Spelling Bee March 25. That included Katrina Vollmer, an eighth-grader from San Francisco de Asís in Flagstaff and three fellow competitors in their last bee before high school. It was actually Vollmer’s third state bee.
The same held true for Tanner Dodt, a seventh-grader with Heritage Christian Home Educators in Prescott Valley, who is a parishioner at nearby St. Germaine. It was the second state bee for a pair of fellow seventh-graders. Two of them fought their way to the top five with every one of them having a trophy of various heights to prove it.
It took nearly four-and-a-half hours, including a couple of breaks when some students put on a jacket, to determine the overall winner. Round after round — 13 of them to be exact before the bulk of the spellers really started bowing out — Arizona’s best young spellers confidently announced the right letters in the right order.
“Hope you all brought your lunch. Dinner perhaps,” Roxie Fry told parents, siblings and other family members in the audience after a perfect first round. Spellers have been hearing Fry pronounce their words the last 25 years. Fry herself is the mother of Arizona’s 1988 state champion.
Among 2017’s expert spellers were Emma Nguyen, the youngest competitor at age 9. The fourth-grader represented Cochise County and bowed out in the eighth round with the word, “blitzkrieg.” Isabella Campbell, a fourth-grader who represented Greenlee County and a parishioner at Holy Cross in Morenci, was among three 10-year-old spellers. She advanced to the sixth round with Ayla Dunton, representing Homeschoolers 4 Him in Tolleson and Maricopa County Region 5, bowing out in the 11th round.
The final 10-year-old hung in until the 13th round. That latter, unlucky round knocked out 14 spellers and left the top five. The top two spellers emerged one round later.
Still, no one went home feeling defeated. Or, if they were temporarily disappointed for not advancing further, a quick reminder of the bee’s beginning likely brightened their spirits. That’s when the audience applauded and cheered for the spellers’ achievements for nearly two minutes straight. Yes, the parents were proud, but KAET’s floor director who spearheaded the recording needed to ensure the control room had plenty of video to work with when editing the bee for its April 21 air date.
Tyler Paley, emcee and a student at the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications, also offered his congratulations to the spellers — several times, in fact, to get the take just right. He traced a student’s pathway to the Arizona Spelling Bee, mentioned a mutual love of reading for most spellers and highlighted generic individual interests.
“Each of the spellers have these things in common: perseverance, determination and grit,” Paley said in his polished broadcast voice.
Vollmer was this year’s diocesan runner up and a three-peat Coconino County champion. She also enjoys running, soccer, volleyball and baking. She plans to backpack around the Grand Canyon this spring.
Audrey Wood, a seventh-grader at St. John Bosco in Ahwatukee, competed in her first Arizona Spelling Bee this year and recently finished fourth in as many diocesan bees. She studied the official spelling list for 30-60 minutes a night before falling asleep to better help the words sink in. Wood was among five students featured on “Arizona Horizon” leading up to the state spelling bee.
Wood credited acting lessons for helping her remain calm while on stage throughout so many oral spelling contests. That especially helped at the county bee for Region 1 where Wood and the runner-up went six rounds before a winner emerged. A third passion helped too.
“I like writing a lot, so I like to use new words to write with,” said Wood. She and Vollmer misspelled and “reboise” and “croze” respectively in that fateful 13th round.
John Ferdinand Tatil II, an eighth-grader from Lourdes Catholic School in Nogales, likes the guitar, singing and cooking. He successfully spelled “chimichanga,” “saltine” and other words in the Arizona Spelling Bee, but misspelled “benignant” in — you guessed it — round 13. TV viewers will distinguish Tatil as the darker-haired boy with a bright blue collar under his official purple Arizona Spelling Bee T-Shirt. Dodt, from Prescott Valley who wore a similar collar, always spelled after Tatil and will be distinguishable by his blonde hair.
Dodt also became the only boy in the top five. That wasn’t his specific goal, but Yavapai County’s top speller did hope to achieve the top five. It showed progress from making the top 20 and top nine the last two years. His feat was also a nod to what became an 18-month project.
“After my first state bee, I took every word in the dictionary that I didn’t know and typed it,” Dodt said. Every participant receives The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. Dodt said writing the words helped his brain better grasp their spelling.
His preparation proved to be a good match for Penda Ba, an eighth-grader from Sossaman Middle School in Queen Creek and one of 12 Maricopa County representatives. The first-time speller who also enjoys art and family time, battled it out another 14 rounds that went 45 minutes. Dodt endured the challenge. During the Yavapai County Bee, he and a sixth-grader went back and forth for 24 rounds.
Tougher words at the state bee included “dacquoise,” “reliquaie” and “notturno” beginning in the 26th round. Neither Dodt nor Ba could correctly spell them.
Then Dodt missed the second letter of “samarium” allowing a thinned-out crowd to get its final glimpse of victory. When Ba got the silvery-white metallic element right, her championship word was also the fifth five-letter word she was asked to spell in the 325-word Arizona Spelling Bee: “G-I-G-U-E,” — a lively dance movement. Coincidentally, that would have been Dodt’s fifth one too.
Ba will represent Arizona in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in late May.