The 26 students who sat nervously on the stage at St. Francis Xavier Catholic School had been preparing for months, years even.
One of them would walk away as the diocesan spelling champ.
Of course, they’d each already won their individual school spelling bees. Four of the contestants had participated in the diocesan bee in previous years.
Before the competition commenced, Collen McCoy-Cejka, assistant superintendent of Catholic schools, made it clear that simply participating in the diocesan-wide event, part of Catholic Schools Week, was an honor.
“I want you to all smile and be very proud for just a moment,” McCoy-Cejka said before spelling out the rules. “You are all champions.”
Decked out in their school uniforms, the students listened carefully as Rudy Garcia of the diocesan school board pronounced each word. Everybody made it through the first round. By round five, the words were getting trickier. Many of the students asked for a definition or part of speech. Others asked Garcia to use the word in a sentence.
Parents watched, holding their breath, as students were eliminated by increasingly difficult words.
A few of the students appeared to write out the words on the palms of their hands, helping them visualize the letters. By round eight, there were only eight contestants left.
Dylan Ramsperger, a sixth-grader from St. Catherine, took a deep breath before spelling “umbilical.” He spelled it correctly and held on until he came up against “manacle” in round nine.
Catherine Alaimo, a fifth-grader at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Scottsdale, was puzzled by the word “gibbon” but then asked for a definition. She spelled it correctly and made it through to round 10 before stumbling on “gyrate.”
By round 10, it was down to just two contestants: seventh-grader Gabriel Nield of St. John Vianney — last year’s runner-up — and fifth-grader Daniel Campbell of St. Mary-Basha.
That’s when Campbell misspelled “exhilarated.” To win, Nield would have to spell two words correctly. He did so, spelling out “congelative” and then “napoleon,” as in the pastry.
“The main thing I did was study lists,” Nield said. His godmother, Jessica, agreed that she might be willing to buy Gabriel a napoleon. “I thought they meant Napoleon Bonaparte,” she laughed.
Campbell said he was excited just to be in the spelling bee.
“I had never even won my school spelling bee before and I was just hoping to do as well as I could,” Campbell said. “I didn’t expect to get in second place.”
Both Nield and Campbell won trophies for their feat and Nield was given a $50 Amazon gift certificate.
Katrina Vollmer, 12, who represented San Francisco de Asís School in Flagstaff at the diocesan spelling bee, went on to win first place at the Coconino County Spelling Bee Feb. 7.
The sixth-grader will compete in the Arizona Educational Foundation State Spelling Bee March 21 in Phoenix. The winner of that competition will represent Arizona at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington in May.
“I’m excited but I’ve got to do a bunch more studying,” Vollmer said. “I guess all those spelling tests I’ve has at school have helped.”
Gabriel Nield, the winner of the diocesan school bee, will take part in a regional competition Feb. 21.