Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School produced two spelling champs on Tuesday, but it wasn't easy.
Certain words during the Douglas County School District's seventh- and eighth-grade finals seemed plucked from obscurity, dredged from esoteric corners of the lexicon, such as "ocarina," a small, often ceramic wind instrument, or "nonagenarian," a person between 90 and 100 years old.
Other words had a distinct, shall we say, flavor, like "chalupa," and "tamale."
Pau-Wa-Lu librarian and event moderator Susan Bullard explained that the spelling bee word list is varied and relies on "the luck of the draw." Some spellers may know every word except the one they receive, and vice versa, she said.
Round one of the seventh-grade competition was a testament to this conundrum. Six out of eight students were eliminated in one sweep with misspellings on "macabre," "parquet," "nautilus," and "lariat," among others.
Only Ian Ozolins from Carson Valley Middle School and Grace McNalley from Pau-Wa-Lu advanced. They went head-to-head in the next two rounds, during which neither were able to spell their respective words, including "parody," "malignant," "ocarina" and "maelstrom."
In round four, Ian missed a vowel in "reversible," and Grace nailed "narrate" and then "wrestling," clinching the seventh-grade title.
"It's scary but really cool at the same time," she said of her victory. "I'm really proud of myself. Some words were really easy, but others, I had no clue."
Grace said good spelling runs in her family, at least on one side.
"I get if from my mom," she said.
Her parents were in the audience.
"It's exciting," said Jules McNalley-Byington, the champion's mother. "She competed last year at the spelling bee, but her nerves got the best of her. It's fun to see here mature and be able to handle her nerves. She seemed calmer today."
When asked about her daughter's comment on genetics, she made a joke about the other side of the family:
"It definitely does not come from her dad," she said.
Bill McNalley, the father, accepted this statement with a grin:
"I love spell check," he said.
The eighth-grade competition lasted longer. The first round shed four participants with misspellings on "panache," "nonagenarian," "mademoiselle," and "omniscient."
The remaining four participants missed every word in the second round, from "metastasize" to "obstetrician," thus returning to round three as if nothing had happened.
Two of them, however, soon lost on "nutritiously" and "rupee," while Pau-Wa-Lu's Connor Brown advanced with "ingenious," and Luke Heinrichs from CVMS advanced with "clapboard."
Luke almost pulled out in round four after Connor misspelled "physique." Luke sounded out "chalupa" with no problem but missed "juggernaut" in the follow-up.
In round five, he missed "pistachio," and Connor took the advantage with the correct spelling of "tamale." Conner's follow-up word was "lethargy," which he proceeded to spell out correctly, taking the eighth-grade title in the process.
"I think it means you're almost like a vegetable - lazy," Connor said of his winning word. "It's kind of unreal. I wasn't expecting to win. I just did this for fun, to pass the time."
He was likewise nonchalant about the origin of his talent.
"Maybe I'm a little above average in spelling," he said. "I did a little studying before. But I read a lot."
Both champions said they're excited to attend the state spelling bee in Las Vegas on March 2.