These students placed in the top five at the Hall County school system spelling bee:
First: Sabrina Steptoe, seventh grade, Davis Middle
Second: Nikki Dulaney, fifth grade, Friendship Elementary
Third: Matthew Antoci, eighth grade, South Hall Middle
Fourth: Emma Alexandrov, seventh grade, West Hall Middle
Fifth: Megan Stephens, fifth grade, Mount Vernon Elementary
Sabrina Steptoe had asked her mother to stay out of the audience, afraid that her watching would make her more nervous.
Nancy Steptoe complied for awhile, but "sneaked in" as the number of participants in Tuesday's Hall County school system spelling bee whittled down to her 12-year-old daughter and 11-year-old Nikki Dulaney.
"I saw you running up to the front row," said Sabrina, a seventh-grader at Davis Middle School in Flowery Branch.
Turns out mom's appearance didn't throw Sabrina off her game, as she won the competition by spelling ‘"renovate," a word that Nikki tripped on, and then "typhoon."
"I still can't breathe," Sabrina said afterward, reacting to winning. "I was extremely nervous because I knew there would be some challenging words."
Her mother was all smiles, meanwhile.
"I'm over the moon," Nancy said. "I couldn't be more proud. Her dad (Derek) and I are just elated that she made it this far. We told her it was an honor just to make it to the county bee."
Sabrina and Nikki, a fifth-grader at Friendship Elementary School near Buford, will advance to the district competition set for Feb. 25 at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee. The state spelling bee is slated for March 16 at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
The Georgia Association of Educators sponsors the statewide competition. The Scripps National Spelling Bee is set for May 27-June 1.
The Hall County bee, taking place at The Oaks at Lanier Charter Career Academy, featured one winner from 16 elementary schools and one winner each from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades at each of the middle schools.
In all, the competition featured 34 participants.
The event offered some drama, especially at the end when pronouncer B.J. Williams declared that Nikki had misspelled "ventilate." When Sabrina spelled the word correctly, Nikki shrugged and said, "That's what I said."
After a couple of protests from the audience, officials reviewed an audio recording and determined Nikki had spelled it correctly. Nikki was able to continue in the competition.
Overall, the competition lasted 14 rounds and comprised 106 words of varying difficulty, with some spellers drawing a gasp or applause as they pieced together the right letters.
Sabrina said that she plans to prepare in the same way that she did for the county bee.
"I'll just study the packet that I've already been given," she said.
Her other strategy at district is "try not to be so nervous," Sabrina said. "I might spell something wrong if I'm too nervous."
Thom and Kathy Dulaney, meanwhile, were proud that Nikki beat out much older competition on her way to second place.
"This is the second year in a row she won at her school," Thom said.
"She didn't place last year, though. This is her first placing at the county (bee)," Kathy said.
"We're very proud," the couple said in unison.