It wasn't as obvious as last year, but the spelling bee dominance of Frontier Elementary School students continues.
While the top two winners in the district competition, 12-year-olds Amanda Finley and Kylea Donaldson, attend Rim Country Middle School, both are products of FES. Last year, the top three finishers were all FES students, including Finley who also came in first in 2002.
Gail Gorry, Frontier principal and the administrator in charge of this year's competition, ruled out "something in the water," but wouldn't discount the possibility of a phenomenon she mysteriously referred to as "the dome effect" in trying to account for her school's continuing success.
"Seriously," she said, "we have quality educators throughout our district."
Finley and Donaldson came out on top in a field of 48 spellers last Thursday at the Payson High School auditorium. Each of the three elementary schools sent its top 12 spellers, as did RCMS.
Finley bested Donaldson after a tense few final rounds, when the latter stumbled on the word "siege."
"I knew how to spell the word, but I went ‘s-e' when I was up there," Donaldson said.
Following Donaldson's stumble, Finley had to spell two words to clinch the win. When she spelled "veil" correctly it was all over, and probably just in time. The humble repeat champion says her spelling skills are already starting to erode -- possibly due to advancing age.
"My spelling is getting worse," Finley said.
The champion said she tries to think about the word as she spells it, while Donaldson said she looks at the microphone and tries to form a picture of the word in her mind.
Both girls said spelling comes naturally to them, and neither believes that studying does much to improve spelling skills.
"I don't study because I already know them," Finley said. "If I don't, I just guess."
When asked what advice she would give to those who are not blessed with an innate ability to spell, Finley said, "Look it up in the dictionary."
Both girls hope to be singers one day, a career that requires the same stage presence they displayed in winning the competition. Neither girl was particularly nervous when the pressure started mounting at the end, they said.
Gorry believes a practice round that allowed competitors to get used to walking to the microphone and "get the jitters out" probably helped.
"It really went back and forth at the end," Gorry said. "It was quite dramatic."
Finley and Donaldson will go on to the county competition, along with the next four finishers from the district. They are Janelle Garrison (Julia Randall Elementary), Robyn Mueller (RCMS), and Taylor Goss (FES), who finished in a three-way tie for third place, and Jimmy Behrens (Payson Elementary School).
The 48 competitors were selected in different ways by their respective schools.
A sizable audience was on hand to watch the competition, including parents, teachers and some classmates.
"Julia Randall always brings its entire fourth and fifth grades over to watch," Gorry said.
The county spelling bee will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 28 at the LDS Stake Center in Globe at the junction of highways 60 and 70. The event is open to the public.
The winner will compete in the state spelling bee, with the Arizona champion competing in the national competition in Washington, D.C. Last year, FES student Ben Paric finished second to Finley at the district level, but went on to win the county bee and compete in the state bee.