In the end, it came down to the spellers’ “credentials.”
The 2015 Johnston County Spelling Bee seemed set to go on for hours, as the final two competitors settled into a groove, quickly and confidently knocking down words like fiasco, fandango and wanderlust.
But then Casper Smith, a sixth-grader from Clayton Middle School, got a little ahead of himself in the 15th round when asked to spell “credentials.”
“C-R-E-D-E-N-T-I,” Smith called out with determination and accuracy before disaster struck.
The young competitor then accidentally skipped over the letter A and went right to the L. Smith uttered just the first part of that letter before catching himself, and he frantically started spelling the word over from the beginning.
The second attempt was perfect but too late.
The judges rang the pitiless bell that made the error official, and Abigail Pittman, a seventh-grader from Southside Christian School, stepped forward to take her stab at the eliminating word.
Cool in the critical moment, the reigning county champion spelled “credentials,” then spelled “spherical” for the win.
Pittman took home the big trophy, a thick Webster’s dictionary and a week-long family trip to Washington, D.C., where she will represent Johnston County on national television at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in late May.
Victory was sweet for Pittman. “I like winning,” she said. “I think we’re going to go get a milkshake to celebrate.”
Pittman made it through the first two televised rounds in the Scripps bee last year, she said, but then failed to pass the paper test to advance further. No one had told Pittman about the test, but now she’s ready for the challenge and expects to have a better showing at this year’s national contest, she said.
Having taken a liking to letters, Pittman said she plans to become an author when she grows up.
The field for the Johnston County bee started with 12 students who faced off Tuesday evening on the auditorium stage at Selma Elementary School. Each of the competitors had placed first at his or her middle school to qualify, and one child represented the county’s home schoolers.
Most of the children tapped their toes and sat nervously on stage as Tandra Batchelor-Mapp, principal of West Smithfield Elementary School, delivered opening remarks and read the detailed list of rules for the bee. If any of the kids appeared relaxed during the build-up, it was the two eventual finalists.
More than half of the contestants were out by the end of round four, perhaps undone by the intimidating combination of bright lights, microphone and a crowd of more than 50 people.
The majority of mistakes came from not knowing whether a word had double consonants – such as the two B’s in “grabble” or the single C in “academy.” Other spellers couldn’t decide which vowel made a certain sound, such as whether “furlong” started with “fur” or “fir.” Once a child misspelled a word, he went backstage to the “comfort room” before returning to the audience with his parents.
The audience applauded after each correctly spelled word and clapped even louder in support of children when they got one wrong.
Only three contestants survived into round eight, at which point everyone left was guaranteed to win a trophy. The only question was how big it would be and whether it came with a trip to Washington, D.C. Third place was decided in that round, when Ben Bayles, an eighth-grader from Princeton Middle School, misspelled “gordita” by substituting a D for the T.
Pittman and Smith then blazed through five rounds without a mistake until Smith’s error in round 15 brought the competition to an abrupt end.