CHARLOTTESVILLE — Cathleen Huffman turned to her students, surveyed the group of middle-schoolers in matching royal blue T-shirts and asked the ever-important question: “Who wants to go first?”
From the back of the throng, Garrett Adams shot up his hand.
He’d be the first to take the stage for Eastern Hancock Middle School’s spell bowl team, he told his coach; to put pencil to paper in the 12-team regional contest conducted at his school Wednesday night.
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More than 145 young spellers from across central Indiana came to Hancock County on Wednesday to participate in the Indiana Academic Spell Bowl junior division competition. Joining the young Royals team at Eastern Hancock Middle School on Wednesday were students from Greenfield-Central, Southern Hancock and Mt. Vernon school corporations.
The local competitors were among 2,000 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who took part in the contest statewide. More than a dozen school districts hosted a satellite event this week — the final test for teams looking to earn a spot at the state championships at Purdue University later this year.
As Garrett and a dozen others took to the stage and settled into desks for the first round of the competition, a hush fell over the boisterous crowd.
The announcer read off the first word, and Garrett’s eyes dropped to the sheet of paper in front of him. He scribbled out the letters and waited for a moment in semi-silence to see if his spelling was correct.
And when it was, his hand shot joyfully into the air, signaling to Eastern Hancock teammates he’d taken them a point closer to victory. They cheered and applauded in response.
The Spell Bowl has no individual winners. Each team member takes a turn, writing the spelling of seven words and earning a point toward their group tally with every correct spelling. Winners were announced Thursday afternoon after the statewide scores were totaled. The top 36 schools were counted as state finalists.
Eastern Hancock Middle School, which placed fifth in its division, will advance to the Purdue state finals on Nov. 11 to compete against eight other Class 3 schools.
Doe Creek Middle School, Mt. Vernon Middle School and Greenfield Central Junior High did not advance to the Class 1 state finals.
Doe Creek came in 13th statewide out of the 50 middle school and junior high school teams that competed in the Class 1 division. Greenfield and Mt. Vernon came in at 45 and 47, respectively.
The spellers spend months learning 1,647 words provided to them by state organizers, said Amber Connors, a coach for the Doe Creek Middle School team.
As the spellers wait for their turn, they practice a bit more. Some eagerly, some anxiously. Some craning their necks toward the stage between words, hoping to see how their teammates fared.
But the success is measured in more than tally marks, organizers say. In the month they spend together, learning to string letters into something meaningful, the kids form friendships.
Emma Mann, an eighth-grader at Doe Creek, participated in Spell Bowl throughout elementary school. She said her interest in academics brought her to the competition, but the bonds she formed with her teammates kept her there.
“It’s a fun way to connect with people who have the same interests as you,” she said.
No matter how the competition turned out for them, the kids usually leave with smiles, Huffman said.
Eastern Hancock’s students made goodie bags to give to each of the visiting schools, a little gift to enjoy on the ride home, Huffman said.
It’s just a treat to make everyone feel appreciated, to celebrate all the effort they put in, she said.
“The words are incredibly difficult, and you have to put in a lot of effort to do it well,” Huffman said in an email to the Daily Reporter. “We also want kids to learn that hard work pays off.”