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Contestants dwindling as spelling bee heads into final day

May 29, 1997 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For Katie Grayson, ``ostensible″ was obvious. ``Refocillate″ was more obscure.

The 14-year-old from Fayette, Ala., stepped up to the microphone today and correctly spelled ``ostensible’ to kick off the final day of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee.

But she didn’t stay for the finish. Leading off as the only contestant from Alabama, the first state alphabetically, she was tripped up by ``refocillate.″ The dictionary says it means to refresh or revive.

Katie was among 116 finalists starting the second and final day in a show of spelling prowess that began with 245 youngsters. By day’s end, only one person would claim the national championship. The champion gets $5,000 in cash, a laptop computer, encyclopedia and other gifts, not to mention fame and a trophy.

Contestants were being thinned out early. After Katie got her word right, the second contestant, 12-year-old Claire Matthews of Fairbanks, Alaska, stumbled on ``deprecated,″ which she spelled as ``d-e-p-r-i-c-a-t-e-d.″ Putting an ``i″ where an ``e″ should have been has done in more than one speller.

Of the first 10 spellers this morning, four stumbled and six got a chance to try an even trickier word. When today’s second round ended, the fifth of the bee, only 35 were left.

Words like ``banausic,″ meaning practical, and ``loxocosm,″ a measuring device, took their toll.

Earlier, the remaining contestants, sporting uniform white polo shirts and wearing large yellow plaques with their number and sponsor, occupied four rows of seats on a raised, maroon platform. As one spoke, two stood waiting.

One, Brian Thomas McDermott, 13, of Riverside, N.J., could be seen briefly with hands raised in prayer. He was eliminated after misspelling ``fanfaronade.″

The youngsters, aged 9 to 15, wrestled differently with the ordeal of spelling before a crowd and television cameras in a large hotel ballroom.

One of the most unmistakable on Wednesday was Rebecca Sealfon. Her style eased the tension for some and added to it for others.

The 13-year-old from Brooklyn played cat and mouse with words, asking questions about their origins in a way that suggested she knew the spelling all along. Then she spelled slowly, deliberately, letter by drawn-out letter, reaching a crescendo as if she was singing ``The Star-Spangled Banner.″

That’s how she did it with ``sesquicentennial,″ her first task Wednesday.

After belting out the long word, which means 150th anniversary, Rebecca flailed her arms in glee and returned to the rows of seated contestants who still were in the game. The home-schooled youngster stayed in the running by later spelling ``inducement″ and ``prejudicial.″

Today, she spelled ``vaporetto″ and then ``bivouac″ _ ``that is not `p’ but is `b.‴ Feeling a little under the weather, she was allowed to take a seat offstage between spellings.

Others coped with the strain by using humor, sometimes in a wise-guy vein. Others got on with the job of spelling difficult words, the strain obvious in their voices and knitted brows. For others, it meant an urge to visit the restroom _ so irresistible for one that he made the request to be excused while standing at the microphone in front of a ballroom full of onlookers.

For some, the humor came gently.

Alex Carter, 12, of South Charleston, W.Va., teased the pronouncers _ the people who read the words to be spelled _ asking for the ``etymology, please,″ a permissible request, then joking, ``spelling, please.″ He got the word, ``oneiric″ on his own. The word means relating to dreams.

He was finally bounced today after missing ``turgescent.″

Chanoya Kidd, an 11-year-old from Trelawny, Jamaica, kept unfailingly polite throughout. ``Could you repeat the word, sir?″ she asked the pronouncer today, sounding like young Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. ``Thank you, sir,″ Chanoya said, when given the added information.

Chanoya, got her word, ``claustrophobe.″ But when she missed ``Buddhism,″ it was too much. She sobbed loudly on her way through a side door offstage.