Third time could be the charm for Scripps Spelling Bee contestant

May. 29, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

At a time when SanLee Middle School students are preparing for exams, one eighth-grader is on an out-of-town trip — but he may be studying just as hard as his classmates.

Hunter Randolph is in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C., participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and on Tuesday, he was taking tests and memorizing words unfamiliar to many college grads. Meanwhile, his middle school peers were preparing for the state’s math and reading End of Grade tests.

Hunter wasn’t available to talk Tuesday, but his mom, Southern Lee High School chemistry teacher Julie Randolph, said they both have a good feeling about this year — his third time competing in the national contest.

The preliminary trials that determine whether students advance to the televised semi-finals and finals consist of a spelling test and vocabulary test that all 281 national contestants take, as well as two words picked randomly from a list of 1,600 that were released beforehand.

Randolph said Hunter got his two unique words right and is hoping he did relatively well on the standardized test. Now, with the written portion out of the way, each contestant will be asked to spell a word correctly on stage today. If Hunter gets it wrong, he goes home. If he gets it right, he has to spell another word, and if he gets that one wrong, he goes home. If he gets it right, he’s grouped with everyone else who spelled both words correctly. They will then be ranked based on their test performance, and the top 50 participate in the televised contest held Thursday.

“It’s just relative to how well did you do with your gut, and how did everyone else do,” Randolph said. “It’s a little bit of luck. So now, we’re just hoping he gets his two [on-stage words] right.”

If he does, and if he does get a stroke of luck in the standardized test — it features 48 questions, but only 24 actually count toward the final score — Hunter will be on stage on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. Thursday for the semis. The finals begin at 8 p.m. on ESPN, but Randolph said no matter how far Hunter goes this year, which is the last year he’ll be able to participate, he has at least had fun, learned a lot and made new friends.

“It’s just a fantastic experience, and the other kids are all nice and well-rounded for the most part,” she said.

People who want to play along at home — either to test their own skills or marvel at the perspicacious contestants — can find links to that option, as well as a full schedule and more information about the competition, at www.spellingbee.com/about-bee-week. In addition to the televised portions, ESPN is also streaming parts of the competition online, and Hunter’s dad, Jimmy Randolph, said that’s likely how he’ll watch his son compete because he has to stay in town and run his business, Payroll Edge.

However, he said if Hunter does make the semi-finals, he’ll arrange to get to D.C. and watch in person. But he noted that the amount of dedication and preparation some students put into the contest is miles beyond what even his own son, who has been to the national competition multiple times, has put in — although he said he’s absolutely fine with that.

“The commitment level that’s required to advance to the semi-finals is very, very significant,” he said. “And you know, Hunter’s got a lot of other things going on, and we understand that. We like that he’s taking a balanced approach.”

If Hunter wins, he would be the first champion from North Carolina since 1970, when Winston-Salem resident Libby Childress spelled “croissant” correctly to win it all. However, this year’s finalists are likely to face challenges more along the lines of “guetapens,” “cymotrichous” and “stromuhr” — the winning words in each of the last three years.