At the beginning of the 39th annual Hill County Spelling Bee on Tuesday, the rows of chairs in front of the Havre Middle School auditorium were filled with about 70 students, grades five through eight, carefully culled from 13 area schools.
"Schedule," said pronouncer Butch Marshall to the student who had the misfortune to get the first word of the bee in front of the three judges and more than 100 spectators.
The student carefully felt the word out: "S - K - E - D - U - L - E."
Six rounds and about 150 words later, only about 10 students remained, the rest having wrestled unsuccessfully with hidden double letters, silent letters, and the other wiles of a stubbornly unphonetic language. Words like "ostentation," "unilaterally," and "blunderbuss" sent them reluctantly to the audience to watch.
Then Marshall broke out the heavy artillery. "Quiche" did in home-schooler Isaac Hutton. St. Jude seventh-grader Josi Herron missed one letter of "ballistics," and HMS eighth-grader Anni Freier slipped up on "nightingale." In a span of only 15 words, the field was narrowed down to two: last year's county spelling champion, HMS eighth-grader Heather Kohlman, and KG eighth-grader Casey Donoven.
Once the bee gets down to two contestants, the rules change. To win, a student must get two words right and the opponent must miss a word in the same round.
Kohlman and Donoven went back and forth for several rounds. They would either both get the word right, or one missed word would be matched by another, so neither student could clinch the win.
Finally Kohlman faltered on "peristaltic," and Donoven correctly spelled "bayonet" and "rhinal."
"It was getting kind of long up there," Donoven, 14, said after receiving the first-place trophy from the Havre Jaycees. And it wasn't all easy.
"I was perfectly sure that I was going to miss 'cyanide,'" Donoven said. He didn't.
Donoven, who made it to the county bee for the first time after competing in school bees for four years, said he didn't do anything special to prepare.
Donoven will compete in the state spelling bee in Helena on April 3. Kohlman will be listed as an alternate for the state bee.
Kohlman said that after winning the bee last year, getting second this year felt strange.
"It felt weird. Because I've already been up there once before, except I had first last time." Kohlman placed 21st of 75 contestants at the state spelling bee last year.
She said she learned many of the words she knows by reading science fiction books, although she "read a couple pages of the dictionary" as well.
Third-place finisher Vanessa Lipp, 14, an eighth-grader at Blue Sky School, said the contest is unpredictable.
"It depends on the words you get, because they're all mixed up, so sometimes you get hard ones," said Lipp, who placed fourth in last year's county spelling bee.
The other top-10 finishers from Tuesday's bee were: St. Jude eighth-grader Katie Mariani, HMS eighth-grader Anni Freier, HMS seventh-grader Kaden Keto, HMS seventh-grader Josh Miller, St. Jude seventh-grader Josi Herron, home-schooled eighth-grader Isaac Hutton, and HMS eighth-grader Gary Arbuckle.