ST. PETERSBURG — Tommy Foster had been here before.
It was the same room. The same microphone. The same challenger.
Foster, a bespectacled 12-year-old who lives in Carrollwood, walked to the front of the same stage.
A young woman a few feet away addressed the hushed crowd.
"This is the championship round," she said. "If he gets this word correct, he will be our champion."
• • •
Here, in the chapel building at Admiral Farragut Academy, an almost sacred ritual was taking place.
Every year, dozens of elementary and middle schoolers from around Tampa Bay gather to compete in the regional spelling bee.
The winner earns a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete for a spot in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which is broadcast on television.
On Saturday, a crowd of about 100 watched as the local competition of 26 students was whittled to 10, then five, and then — after 25 rounds — just two.
• • •
Tommy and Nikitha Chandran, an 11-year-old who lives in Brandon, met on the same stage last year.
Their rounds go fast. Neither hesitates when they spell, except to ask for clues like where a word originated from or what its definition is.
Even when they had knocked out all of the other competitors, the two still went head to head for another 20 minutes.
"Grotesque." "Quartz." "Scurrilous." "Ballyhooed." "Execration." "Plasmalemma." "Syllogism."
And so it went, until Nikitha missed "filiality." She spelled it with a "P-H" at the beginning.
The word reader leaned forward and looked at Tommy.
"Your word is: kookaburra."
Tommy leaned into the microphone:
"Kookaburra. K-O-O-K-A-B-U-R-R-A. Kookaburra."
For a few seconds, there was silence.
"Correct," the judge said.
The crowd cheered.
For the second year in a row, Tommy had taken the top prize, which also includes a few gift cards, a dictionary, a $100 savings bond, an online encyclopedia subscription and a trophy.
As people moved in to take his picture, Tommy grinned. His opponent stood next to him, also smiling.
"All competition is friendly," he said. "It's us against the words, not really each other."
• • •
Tommy's mom, Chris, teaches him at home. His dad Jim is a systems engineer.
The seventh-grader said he practices about 30 minutes a day on spelling. To prepare for the national competition in June, he said he'll probably do a little more.
Last year he made it through a few rounds in the national competition. This year he wants to do well enough to get to the televised portion.
He's not worried about nerves. Something about being on stage takes care of that.
"It just starts to fade away once you start spelling," he said.
Kameel Stanley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643.