On a brightly lit stage, in front of a crowd in a dark, quiet theater, Matthew Prus prayed to God for help.
In round 18 of the 2014 Regional Spelling Bee, the competition had come down to Matthew, a sixth-grade home-schooler, and Audrey Frische, a fifth-grade student at Allen Elementary in Soddy-Daisy.
Audrey, the younger sister of 2012 and 2013 champion Nicole Frische, had just misspelled "hartebeest," a type of grassland antelope from Africa, spelling it with a "D" instead of a "T." If Matthew could spell the next two words correctly, he'd walk away the winner.
First word: tokamak, a Russian-named device used in nuclear fusion.
One down. One to go.
Second word: pizzicato, an Italian word that refers to a style of plucking a stringed instrument.
Applause erupted and the crowd cheered for Matthew, who, as winner of the bee, received a large trophy, a $600 cash prize, a $100 savings bond, a dictionary and a trip in May to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., where he will represent the Chattanooga region. The annual bee is sponsored by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
"I'm very excited to be able to go to Washington D.C., for one," said Matthew, who added that he had never been. "To represent Chattanooga, it will be an amazing honor as one of the spellers in the national spelling bee."
On Saturday afternoon, 62 students ranging from fourth to eighth grade and representing about 40 regional schools faced off on the stage of the Fine Arts Center of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to see who would be this year's champion.
The rules were simple. In a spell-off, each contestant got one word per round. If they spelled it correctly, they advanced to the next round, but an incorrect spelling would mean disqualification. Students could request information from the official pronouncer, Dr. Valerie Rutledge, dean of UTC's College of Health, Education and Professional Studies, about the word to spell, such as the language of origin or the word's definition. But once they started spelling, there were no do-overs.
The competition started off with more common, though still difficult, words.
About round three, less common words started cropping up, and the eliminations became more frequent.
Correct spellings were occasionally accompanied by contestant fist-pumps.
And by round 12, it was down to the top five, which also included Lakeview Middle School seventh-grader Anthony Watkins, eighth-grade home-schooler Hayden Daniel and East Hamilton Middle High eighth-grader Ester Kolade.
Overall, the competition lasted almost three hours and covered nearly 300 words.
In preparation for the bee, Matthew said he copied down the words he'd need to know, looked up the definitions and pronunciations, read the study tips and just studied hard.
And his favorite part of studying for a spelling competition?
"I like learning the meanings of words," Matthew said. "And it is very fun to know the meaning and to actually be able to say them and know what they mean."
Contact staff writer Alex Harris at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.