For 14 rounds Tuesday night, Nick Thompson stood before the microphone, eyes on the ground, spelling out words in an almost somber tone.
The New Prague middle-schooler occasionally looked up to his family in the South Central College Conference Center after spelling a word correctly, offering them a meek half-smile. But for the most part, humility prevailed until "C-A-M-O-U-F-L-A-G-E" in Round 14, followed by the word "Correct" from the judges.
That's when a big smile ran across the 14-year-old's face. His opponent, Maurissa Isaacs of Mountain Lake Elementary School, had just spelled her word, "tuckahoe,' incorrectly, having spelled the word with two Cs. So that meant there was just one last word that stood between Thompson and the title of South Central Service Cooperative Regional Spelling Bee champion -- the championship word, of course.
"For the championship, Nick ...," said Melanie Schmidt from the judging table.
A smile still lingering, eyes forward and confident, "P-O-I-N-S-E-T-T-I-A."
And then Thompson took it all in -- the applause, the press attention, the plaque, the gifts of a very large dictionary and a year's subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, the savings bond, and of course, his free trip to Washington, D.C., in early June for the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
"I'm really excited," he said, still smiling.
Thompson had competed at regionals before in fifth grade. But the last two years, he didn't make it that far.
So he wasn't taking any chances this time. Thompson outlined his practice routine, which involved numerous combinations of writing out practice words hundreds of times. Even on the ride to the competition Tuesday, he wasted no time and practiced his words.
Until round 9, all that practicing certainly paid off. But the word "hydrology" threw him off. He wasn't sure if the word was based off the word "hydraulics," so he slipped up and misspelled it.
Lucky for him, his opponents also misspelled their words, giving them all another chance at the championship. But that was the only word during the two-hour competition, against 41 opponents, that Thompson misspelled.
"Hedonism," "bambino," even "lederhosen" -- all gravy.
Many had imagined when it came to the final round, Thompson would have been joined by Antony Joseph, a Fairmont eighth-grader in his last year of eligibility, who had won the past three years. No one seemed more surprised than Joseph himself when he misspelled the word "cachet," mistaking the word for "cache," in Round 7.
But that's the thing with a spelling bee. Victory and defeat can be determined with one errant letter. And Tuesday night, that was true many times.
As Mary Hillmann of South Central Service Cooperative put it, "It's a real nail-biter."