Competing in the spelling bee is a bit like teeing up during a golf tournament.
That’s how the county’s top speller felt over the weekend, at least.
“Everything is silent when everyone’s spelling,” Sonja Severtson said.
Severtson, a seventh grader at Helena Middle School, aced 16 rounds of competition over the weekend to take the top spot in the 49th annual Lewis and Clark County spelling bee.
To seal her first-place finish, Severtson spelled “suave” and “omnipotent” back to back.
She also spelled mantilla, vogue and mongrel, to name a few, as well as some “easier ones,” such as “prattle.”
Amy Thompson, a seventh grader at C.R. Anderson, finished in second out of 48 competitors. She and Severtson will attend the state bee later this month.
Severtson, who placed second in the 2013 county bee, said her words didn’t seem as difficult this time around.
The pressure, though, never changes.
“It’s really stressful because it’s single elimination,” she said. “You have one word, and if you spell it wrong, you don’t come back.”
Severtson says she has a trick for dealing with those moments on the spot. She asks the judges for the word origin or pronunciation every time, even if she already knows it.
“You sort of forget that everyone’s watching you,” she said.
After putting the e-n-t on omnipotent, Severtson got to do something rare — relax — as a battle for the third place trophy played out over several more rounds.
“It was really quite fierce and really quite good,” judge and retired teacher Doretta Hofland said. “Those little guys just spelled and spelled and spelled.”
Marina Ittner, a seventh grader from the Helena Area Christian Home Educators group, prevailed for third, making for a girls’ sweep of the trophies. Sixth grader Hunter Hales, also a HACHE student, took fourth.
Marsha Davis, county superintendent of schools, was impressed by this year’s spellers.
“I think the students were pretty well prepared. There were lots of good spellers,” she said.
Some of the words on the list boggled even the judges, who said they scratched several that were particularly bizarre. Those included some words of international origin, such as waterzooi (it’s a Belgian stew, for those unacquainted).
Davis said a new rule requiring schools to pay a registration fee of more than $100 has made it more difficult for smaller schools to participate. In Lewis and Clark County, only one school didn’t register, she said, but noted that some counties won’t be represented at the state bee due to the fee.
The requirement comes from the national bee sponsor, The E.W. Scripps Company, Davis said.
The state bee will be held in Billings on March 22.
In the meantime, Severtson will continue to expand her vocabulary.
To study, she pores over the official Scripps word list, which includes “challenge words,” eponymous words and plenty of international origin.
“I go through and I learn how to pronounce all the words on those lists, so when they come up I know how. It’s really important to know how to pronounce,” she said.
“Most people don’t like it very much because it’s staring at a list of words,” Severtson added.
An avid reader, she also makes a point to look up unfamiliar words.
“Knowing what the words mean is also helpful,” she said.
The winner of the state bee will represent Montana at the national competition.