Just ask Tracy high school students Hanna Nakahara and Erik Voelker, who claimed second and third place in the 16th annual San Joaquin County Spelling Bee Championships on Wednesday, Dec. 5.
Both freshmen — Hanna from West High School and Erik from Kimball High School — competed in the seventh- through ninth-grade division at the Wentworth Education Center in Stockton.
“I feel really excited,” Hanna said after the bee, smiling as she held her award certificate inside the competition hall.
The second-place finish means she will go on to the state spelling bee, along with one other girl from San Joaquin County.
“It’s interesting to me to come here and see my friends and past contestants,” Hanna said. “I’m excited about the upcoming spelling bee at state.”
Like déjà vu, Hanna found herself taking second at the county bee for the second year in a row. This time, she said she hoped to pull a stronger finish than seventh at state.
“I was looking to do better,” she said. “I coached myself, studying every weekend. My favorite part was studying word origins.”
With Hanna on Wednesday was her mother, April Nakahara, who said at times she was too nervous to watch. She said she looked up every once in a while to see how many students remained in the competition, which started with 40.
The students sat at long tables arranged in three rows. They were given 20 seconds to write each word on a piece of paper before a proctor checked their spelling.
The entire round lasted more than an hour, with each student allowed to miss three words before they were eliminated. Some of the words they were asked to spell were “disquietude,” “nonchalant” and “tambourine.”
Also headed to the state bee in San Rafael on May 11 is San Joaquin County winner Julie Fukunaga of Tokay High in Lodi. Julie won by spelling “perambulation.”
As the competition unfolded, a near-capacity crowd of about 150 people watched in silence. Regardless of the students’ placement, each received a medal and certificate from the San Joaquin County Office of Education.
Just missing the state finals this year was Erik, the third-place finisher after missing the spelling of “squeegee.”
He said he thought the competition was relatively easy, but his nerves got the best of him. He still, however, made it to the top three.
It was Erik’s second time at the county bee, said his mother, Eileen Voelker, who said he competed several years ago at the fourth-grade level. She said he plans to compete on his own in a medical-word spelling bee in Sacramento in March.
“I’m so proud of him,” she said. “Erik took a break from spelling bees, and this is his last hurrah. He’s an amazing speller.”
Also representing local schools in the upper-grade division Wednesday were Amanda Widgay of New Jerusalem, Matthew Chau of Delta Charter, Sangeetha Bharath of Questa, Hannah Bittar of Bethany, Isabelle Valdez of Jefferson School, Riley Masters of Hawkins Elementary, Kyle Hendricks of Traina Elementary, Huda Nauman of Williams Middle, Tiffany Thomas of Poet Christian and Marielle Garcia of Kelly.
“It was my first time,” Marielle said after her early elimination round. “I’ve been studying since late November, but I was nervous.”
Her mother, Pamela Garcia, said she, too, was nervous as she watched, often holding her breath. Marielle’s father, Albert Garcia, said he was familiar with the stress. He won a spelling bee himself when he was a child.
“I know how it is,” Albert Garcia said. “We studied 30 minutes to an hour each night. The (Tracy Unified School) District finals at Hirsch (Elementary School) were a fierce battle. I was telling her, back in my day, we did the spelling bee during an assembly before the whole school.”
In addition to the older students, Tracy was also represented by six students in the junior division for fourth- through sixth-graders: Anna Canafe of Bethany, Brooke Lemson of New Jerusalem, Ian Galvez of Discovery Charter, Jessica Naranjo of Traina, Jashan Ballagan of Freiler and Olivia Wood of South/West Park.
After the competition — which was won by Jillian Rafert of Annunciation School in Stockton, with the winning word “saboteur” — a few students said it was their first time, but they hoped it wouldn’t be their last.
“I’m really happy for the winner,” said Brooke, a sixth-grader, outside the competition hall with her mother, Debbie Plato. “I wish I could have won, but I think she (Jillian) did a really good job.”
The word that knocked Brooke out was “tonsillitis,” following a two-word elimination round.
“The first round was pretty easy, but then the words got a lot harder,” she said. “My favorite part was coming and representing my school and my county, and trying my best. My medal is going up on my bedroom wall.”
Plato said she was nervous watching her daughter, even though she had confidence that Brooke would do well.
“I was spelling right along with her,” she said. “I think I got ‘tonsillitis’ wrong, too.”
Students were also asked to spell “wharf,” “twilight,” “utopian” and “relinquish.”
Jashan, another first-timer in the junior division, said he thought the contest was tough but enjoyable.
“My favorite part was when I spelled my first word right,” said the sixth grader. “I’ve been studying for a year.”
His father, Surinder Ballagan, said that now that the family knows how the contest works, his son will be better prepared next year.
“First his school’s champion, and then city champ. He’ll get it (state) next year,” he said. “It’s his first time in the competition, and we’re proud of him.”
• Contact Denise Ellen Rizzo at 830-4225 or email@example.com.