Perennial runner-up wins NN Spelling Bee

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, March 14, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

Aarish Raza, middle, congratulates Samuel Yeager, left, after Yeager won the Navajo Nation Spelling Bee after 10 rounds.

F inally, it was Samuel Yeager's turn.

After years of competing in the Navajo Nation Scripps Spelling Bee and finishing maddeningly close to the top, the Chinle Junior High School eighth-grader looked surprised to be declared the winner after only 11 rounds in the final spell-off last Thursday, coasting through "hoax" and "gizzard."

Yeager was runner-up to schoolmate Aarish Raza in last year's Navajo Nation bee, and third place in the bee's sixth-grade division in 2011.

Like the power outage at the Superbowl, it might have been the lunch break that turned the tide for Yeager, a son of Kevin and Linda Yeager of Chinle.

The competition, which used to be by grade level with the best two from each grade competing in the final spell-off, was simplified into two divisions this year: fourth- through sixth-grade, and seventh- through eighth-grade.

The lower-grade competition went for just nine rounds and was mostly a run-off between two fifth-grade up-and-comers who have proved their mettle in previous years: Cameron Fuller of Mesa View Elementary in Chinle and Alannah-Grace Mangubat of Tuba City Boarding School.

Mangubat left out the "h" in stethoscope, leaving Fuller to smell, er, spell, magnolia and then avoid the common double-z pitfall of "hazard."

Fuller said "hazard" was one of the commonly misspelled words she had memorized, by giving herself the notion that it "looked more dangerous" with only one "z."

Then it was time for the upper-grades bout, which everyone knew was going to be a drawn-out grudge match with longtime rivals Yeager and Raza pitted against each other once again.

It should be noted that the boys definitely had some competition.

Surprisingly, 2011 Navajo Nation Bee winner Delila Nakaidinae was out by Round 3, putting an extra "t" in "automaton."

"Androcentric" was one of the words spelled correctly by perennial competitor Abraham Aruguete, and, indeed, this year's upper-grades bee was just that.

By Round 4, only boys were left to compete with Yeager and Raza: Northern Agency Bee winner Kai Lameman, Ft. Defiance Agency Bee winner Trent Tso, Western Agency Bee winner Edick Nuesca, Aruguete (also of Chinle Junior High), and Joshua Dixon of Kayenta Community School.

Tso, Dixon and Lameman went out in Rounds 4, 5 and 6, respectively, leaving Nuesca and the three Chinle kids to duke it out until, in Round 11, Aruguete finally chose wrong on "-ible" vs. "-able" in "intractable."

Nuesca lasted another five rounds, but his "palette" included one too many "l's."

The ensuing Raza-Yeager bloodbath went on and on, through "kama" and "cordovan," "philanthrophy" and "altruism," "carafe" and "thesaurus."

By Round 25, the crowd was getting restless and Yeager was begging for a lunch break. In an effort to move things along, pronouncer Marlita Haviland flipped to the very back of the word list — the super-obscure words you have to be a total spelling geek to know.

As good as they are, Raza and Yeager weren't quite up to end of the list. Yeager took a wild guess on "ogival"; Raza was fooled by "fourberie"; they missed "scaberulous" and "tibetisol" by one letter each.

So it was back to the regular word list, and the competition went on for a total of 47 rounds — five more than last year — with Raza victorious.

But remember, this was just the upper-grade competition. They still had another battle ahead of them, pitting Raza and Yeager against the lower-grade winners, Fuller and Mangubat.

By this time it was well past lunch time, so the competition broke for a half-hour to feast on donated food.

There was something about the lunch break. Although both boys looked relaxed during the break, teasing each other and the other competitors, Raza's stride was broken.

After an interlude to honor longtime Western Agency Spelling Bee volunteer Freida Yazzie, who had passed away of cancer shortly before the bee, the competition resumed. Both boys looked nervous and fidgety, but the pizza and sandwiches that had fortified Yeager were weighing on Raza's gut. He clutched at his side.

Fuller was out in the first round, spelling "enhance" "inhense." Mangubat hung in valiantly until the sixth, when she didn't stand up to "audit."

In Round 9, it looked like Raza would defend his title. Yeager got nipped by "keeshond," spelling it with an extra "u." Raza spelled "diabetic" correctly, but then ran smack into a word that had somehow escaped his formidable vocabulary.

He looked blank when the pronouncer threw out "maxim," finally guessing "maxon." ("I guess he's too young to read the magazine," quipped Times photographer Donovan Quintero.)

That put Yeager back in the competition, where he easily saw through "hoax."

Then — was it possible? — Raza was confronted with another word he had never heard: "effigy." After asking the pronouncer for all the information on the word several times, he appeared to be having an anxiety attack, which, he confirmed later, was exactly what happened. He asked for a break, went back to his chair and collected himself, then got back up and got burned, substituting an "a" for the "i."

Yeager correctly spat out "gizzard," and that was the end of it. After six years of competing, he was the champion in his final year before he aged out. He didn't have to say how it felt. His slowly spreading smile said it all.

Both boys received iPad Minis, and the girls got iPod Touches engraved with their places in the bee. Yeager also received a weighty Merriam-Webster's dictionary, prompting Fuller to tease, "Don't you already have one of those?" since he had won one last year as Raza's alternate.

Yeager will go on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee May 29-30, an all-expense trip to Washington, D.C. sponsored by the Navajo Times.

He gets to take one person along. So far, all the Navajo Nation winners have taken a parent. But Yeager may chart a different path.

"I'm thinking of asking Aarish," he said.

English teacher Shing Aruguete had coached Raza, Yeager, and her son, Abraham Aruguete, but missed the bee because of something that came up at school. Yeager credited also credited his mother, Indian Health Service surgeon Linda Yeager, with his win.

"She makes me study," he said. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have been in any spelling bee, ever."

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