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PLATTSBURGH — Middle-school students from across the area gathered at Plattsburgh High School for a few hours Friday night for a competition not of athletic prowess, but of mental agility.
When it was all said and done, seventh-grader Alyssa Szczypien of Peru Central School won an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C., beating out the North Country's top spellers in the Champlain Valley Educational Services Regional Spelling Bee.
Szczypien emerged victorious after the correct spelling of "pongee" and "narcissism," and now heads to the nation's capital for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She said she has been preparing for the spelling bee since it was announced to students in her school last October.
"It feels awesome. It's not just a trophy. It's a chance to show yourself."
Studying about an hour a day, her father, John, said he couldn't even express how he felt.
"It's a thrill. I didn't expect her to get this far."
The ninth-annual Regional Spelling Bee featured representatives from local schools who won their class spelling bees. Runners-up served as alternates.
This is the third year that winners from this area have been sent to nationals, allowing students a chance to pit their knowledge of vocabulary against other students across the country.
"The spelling bee is an opportunity for our students to participate in a higher level," said AuSable Valley Middle School Principal Phillip Mero. "It gives them the opportunity to show what they learned."
Jane Landry, who works for Assessment and Planning for CVES and helped organize the event, said she is surprised at the level of knowledge many of these kids have even before they study for an event like this.
"I'm amazed at the words they have always been able to spell," Landry said.
However, as they continue to the national level, the words will be increasingly difficult, she said.
Ingrid Cote, a teacher at AuSable Valley Central School, said the top 10 students from the English courses at her school were gathered to compete in a school spelling bee. But for students, it's not just memorizing the spelling of words, it's paying attention to detail, she said.
"It's a living process," she said of language. "It changes, it grows."
Paying attention to detail allows students to explore the meanings of words, which gradually expands to a greater overall knowledge of the world.
Runner-up and seventh-grade champion Lysbeth Buchanan of North Country School said her success was a total surprise.
"Wow," she said. "I didn't even think I'd make it past the third round."
Her secret wasn't to memorize and study words, but to keep up a regular schedule of reading. Finishing eight to nine books a week as a matter of course, Buchanan said she didn't work too hard to prepare for the competition.
"It was really fun," she said.
And as far as not winning the trip to the nation's capital, Buchanan didn't mind.
"She's probably going to (do) better," she said of Szczypien.
In addition to winning the trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by North Country Parents for a National Spelling Bee and the Press-Republican, Szczypien and Buchanan won various other prizes.
Other grade-level winners were Nadia Niva, fourth-grader from Beekmantown Central School; fifth-grader Windy Hoag of Beekmantown Central School; sixth-grader Trevor Wills of Plattsburgh; and eighth-grader Thomas Connor of Peru Central School.
After the first two oral rounds and one written round, 17 students remained. As words like "corpuscle" continued to whittle down contestants, it was soon down to seventh-graders Szczypien and Buchanan. After missing her first word, Szcypien lost the seventh-grade prize to Buchanan, but remained in the running after Buchanan was unable to spell her next word for the championship.
After victory escaped Buchanan's grasp, misspelling "sorghum," words like "febrifugal," "teratological," "vaticinal" and "choucroute" had the final two contestants battling for several more rounds. When Buchanan spelled "roux" incorrectly, however, Szczypien moved in with two correct spellings, sealing her victory.
The night's emcee, WPTZ's Jim Moore, summed up those final rounds when the trophies were awarded.
"This by far was one of the greatest (spelling bees) ever," he said. "It was like a heavyweight fight up there."