Although Curtis Basa, 12, has typically been a good speller - even winning some bees in elementary school - he worried he may have lost his mojo recently.
"For the past couple of years, I've been in some funk," he said.
His confidence was restored somewhat when he won the sixth-grade competition earlier this year at Bethlehem Lutheran School, but it was little comfort going into Tuesday's city wide spelling bee.
"I was nervous all the way," he said.
Turns out, he had little to worry about as he correctly dictated a-b-a-c-u-s to spell victory, defeating sixth-grade competitors from St. Teresa, Carson Montessori and Carson Middle schools.
Although the seventh-grade competition had only two contenders, it was a hard-fought battle to determine a winner.
Just two rounds in, it seemed Noah Jennings, 12, of St. Teresa had lost when he misspelled "capillary." However, competitor Halle Carl from Bethlehem Lutheran missed "bombastic," starting the round over. Jennings went on to correctly spell "zoology," and Carl nailed "rhombus." She met his "speculate" with "tangential" and when he misspelled "papyrus," she followed suit with "jalapeno."
It went on until the 14th round when Carl missed "regurgitate."
It came down to Jennings. His eyes widened and a small laugh escaped as he was given "flagellum."
He'd never heard the word.
"I was nervous, but I was going to give it my best shot," he said later.
When the judges told him it was correct, he uttered an audible sigh.
"I was astonished,"
The eighth-grade competition progressed quickly through the three finalists.
Erica Gallegos, 13, was relieved to hear her final word was "yeti."
"I knew it," she said. "When I heard it, I was like, 'yes!'"
Lonnie Kargas, principal of Bethlehem Lutheran School, has organized a bee at his school for several years. In the past couple of years, Carson Montessori and St. Teresa have joined in as well.
This was the first in a long time that all middle schools have joined in.
Susan Hoffman, a sixth-grade English teacher at Carson Middle School, coordinated the bee there and is eager to see the program continue.
"It's just another area where kids with different skills can be successful," she said. "Let's find ways to recognize them for the different gifts they have."
"When you're under pressure, you grow," he said. "Whether it's spelling, or geography or shooting free throws, you're going to grow in some area of your life."
The winners from each grade level will progress to the statewide competition in Las Vegas on Feb. 26.