A Central Junior High School eighth-grader won Saturday's Douglas County Spelling Bee.
Sweat trickled down Eric Southard's temple. This was the day he had been practicing for. In the gym, with a television camera rolling and his parents watching, the ball was in his court.
And with deft handling of the words thrown at him, he was about to score.
Eric, an eighth-grader who loves soccer and runs the mile in less than six minutes, was one word away from emerging as the Douglas County Spelling Bee champion. Thirty area children -- one from all but three Douglas County schools -- took part in the competition, held at St. John's School.
``Rigorous,'' he said carefully, ``R-I-G-O-R-O-U-S, rigorous.''
With that, Eric won and is now headed to the All-Kansas Bee on April 4 at Washburn University.
``I feel jubilated,'' he said, using a word that even the judges shied away from. ``I was a little nervous, but I just tried to concentrate and not talk too fast.''
Spelling isn't the only subject in which the Central Junior High School student excels. He is currently taking algebra II and will spend his next two Saturdays in math competitions.
``It's like playing pinball for him,'' said his mother, Marylee Southard. ``I think he's starting to become aware of how thankful he should be,'' she said as a smile started to grow across her face. ``But he still has to do his chores at home.''
Raintree Montessori School fifth-grader Sarah Elbayoumy won second place.
``I was pretty nervous,'' she said. ``My teeth were chattering and I was shaking.''
Sarah said she enjoyed her experience and plans to try again next year.
``I love competing with the other students,'' she said.
The top two finishers weren't the only spellers who had a good time.
``I enjoy competitions,'' said Alek McElroy, who represented Prairie Park School. ``I'm not very good at athletics, so this is fun.''
Alek's father, Arvel, said the bee was a way for the children to feel good about themselves.
``It's a good confidence-builder for the students,'' he said. ``It's a good way to have some competition in a fun environment.''
For Emily Jacobson, who is home-schooled, it wasn't hard to explain her smile.
``Just the fact that I was in this,'' the 10-year-old said. ``I learned that there's a lot of good spellers.''
Janice Jacobson, Emily's mother, said she tried to keep the focus of her daughter's experience on having fun, rather than winning.
``I just thought it was cool that she was in it,'' Janice said. ``Winning is not the whole thing.''