Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Ryan Himmelsbach, onstage and set to clinch a second trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, hadn’t recognized what would become the winning word: “teleost.” He may have skimmed the term describing jawed fish during his meticulous study of hard-to-spell word lists, he recalled.

Whether the fourth letter should have been an “i” flickered in his mind, but he landed on “e.” The lack of a judge’s bell-ringing signaled that he was correct, followed by a burst of applause.

For the second straight year, the 13-year-old from East Setauket had bested other Long Island students Sunday at the seventh annual spelldown at Hofstra University. Himmelsbach, an eighth-grader at Paul J. Gelinas Junior High School in the Three Village school district, will represent the region in the Scripps National Spelling Bee this spring in the Washington, D.C. area. He was among 41 students onstage, including his sister, Ava, 10.

“When I got the word right, and I didn’t hear the bell, I was like thrilled about it,” Himmelsbach said.

The students in grades five through eight from Nassau and Suffolk counties were among 129 who completed a written exam the Sunday before as part of the 2018 Hofstra Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee. Those test-takers had won the spelling bees sponsored by their local schools.

The national finals take place May 29-31 in the Maryland Ballroom at Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington.

Some of the words were familiar to Himmelsbach. For the ones that weren’t, “I just pieced it together,” he said.

Ryan Himmelsbach, center, winner of the Hofstra Long Island Regional...

Ryan Himmelsbach, center, winner of the Hofstra Long Island Regional Scripps Spelling Bee, flanked by second-place winner Zekey Huang, right, of Mount Sinai Middle School, and third-place winner Sara Ashraf, of Hicksville Middle School. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Since falling short during the finals on a written exam in the D.C. region last year, Himmelsbach said: “I haven’t stopped studying.”

That routine includes spending three to four hours each day reviewing challenging words in the dictionary and language patterns. Onstage, he peppers the judges with questions and clarifications to better understand a word’s derivation and role in a sentence. “I think of the useful questions I should ask,” he said.

Himmelsbach said he is headed to the finals more experienced and prepared than last year.

“I’ve done it once, so it’s not as new to me,” he said. “And I feel like my experience last year will help.”

He and the first runner-up, Zekey Huang, 12, a seventh-grader at Mount Sinai Middle School, were engaged in a suspenseful back-and-forth toward the end of the spelldown.

After Huang had misspelled “elutriation,” Himmelsbach correctly spelled chevalet and needed to spell one more word to clinch victory. But Himmelsbach subsequently misspelled “wisent,” enabling Huang to return for another round. The victor must correctly spell two words in a row, a feat Himmelsbach achieved in the next round after Huang misspelled “scalariform” and Himmelsbach correctly spelled “viridescent” and “teleost.”

Huang, appearing at Hofstra for the third time, said “I’m very proud. This is the farthest I’ve gone.” Last year, he had finished in ninth place.

He is still eligible to compete next year. Huang’s plan is “to wait a week or sometime and start going over other stuff.”

Jeffrey Morosoff, who serves as pronouncer during the spelldown and is an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra, said the mix of students this year was impressive. “They’re always amazing. You have such young children here who hold their own against older children,” he said.

Those who don’t advance still have an opportunity to compete in the national finals under a new program this year called “RSVBee.” This year, for the first time, Scripps will invite up to 225 students under the “RSVBee” initiative who did not make the cut in the regional spelldowns to compete in the national finals along with the roughly 260 students from sponsored regions, such as Hofstra’s, that advance each year. Those students must attend a school enrolled in the national competition and have either won their local school championship or have been a former national finalist.

The invitation is an effort to include a more geographically diverse swath of students in the finals. Competition organizers note that some states draw more finalists than others. For example, Georgia has one sponsored region, while Ohio has 18. New York has 15 sponsored programs from which national finalists will be drawn.

The final five words:

  • Teleost — having the characteristics of a group that contains most existing jawed fish, but not sharks, skates and rays
  • Viridescent — greenish
  • Scalariform — having transverse bars or markings like the rungs of a ladder
  • Wisent — a European bison
  • Chevalet — the bridge of a stringed musical instrument

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