All 31 children walked in smiling, but only one left that way. The others shuffled out with devastation displayed across their faces, some teary eyed, heads down.
Before it started Saturday, high school freshman Dakota Jones warned the middle school students that it would end that way.
Spelling bees are an extreme experience that competitors take as defeat unless they're No. 1 . That was the case at Saturday's 2012 Las Vegas Review-Journal Nevada State Spelling Bee at Faith Lutheran Junior/Senior High School in Las Vegas. To get there, competitors finished first at their schools and again in county or regional bees.
Dakota knows. Last year, he represented Nevada for his third and final time at the National Spelling Bee, making it to the top five. That's further than any Nevadan in history. But he never made it to the top.
Megan Pineda, 12, of Reno was the lone smiler Saturday.
Her victory grin took two parts skill but one part luck. She'd never heard the word "jovicentric," let alone considered spelling it.
You could see it in the seventh-grader's face as her fingers repeatedly brushed the hair away from her eyes in the 14th and final round. In her head, she dissected the word into its roots. "Centric" is easy. It's a common Greek root. The other letters were an educated shot in the dark for a word meaning to revolve around the planet Jupiter.
But Megan was right Saturday morning, putting an end to four rounds of head-to-head competition with Clark County's Jake Gottschalk, making her Nevada's 2012 Spelling Bee winner. Jake, an eighth-grader at Cashman Middle School in Las Vegas, misspelled "ignominious." Next comes the national championship in Washington from May 27 to June 1.
The four previous competitors who bowed out -- Natalie Anderson of Carson City, Heather Vo of Gardnerville and Matthew Baik and Quincy Eisaman of Reno -- stayed to watch the head-to-head finale.
But the other students left immediately after misspelling words that will haunt them for weeks and be etched in their minds forever.
Ethan Stacey's road to the competition was longer than most. Just a few days ago, Ethan's parents were persuading his doctor to release him after an advanced asthma attack. He couldn't miss the bee. Ethan had studied words, origins and roots for almost two hours every night, said father Jim Stacey, one of about a dozen family members who watched Saturday. Nevertheless, his journey from Lahontan Elementary in Fallon ended quickly in round one because of five letters: B-E-L-A-Y. Like Megan, he'd never heard the word. It's a climbing term. Unlike Megan, his calculated guess didn't pan out.
But he's only in sixth grade and plans to be back.
Brendan Mears, on the other hand, lost his last chance. The Eureka County eighth-grader made it to the state bee for his third and final year. He keeps two words (and their correct spellings) at the front of his mind: echt, meaning genuine, and samovar, which is a highly decorated tea urn used in Russia.
These batches of letters defeated him in sixth and seventh grade. Saturday added another.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at email@example.com or 702-383-0279.