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Sissonville speller relieved to be at National Bee

WASHINGTON -- Traveling to the nation's capitol for a televised competition against some of the best students in the country could make even the most confident 14-year-old a little queasy.

No so for Lauren Coccari.

"It feels like a relief," she said.

"Because it's my last year to be in spelling bees, and it's not all spelling: we get to go out and do things in D.C. and still enjoy ourselves."

Lauren earned the right to enjoy herself in Washington, D.C. as the Gazette-Mail qualifier for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The Sissonville Middle School eighth-grader was the first Kanawha County student to win the 22-county regional bee in 15 years.

Lauren arrived Sunday evening at the Gaylord National Resort in National Harbor, Md., where the spellers are staying and the bee will be held, but Tuesday marked the first challenge for spellers en route to the championship.

All 281 competitors took a computer test Tuesday morning. They donned headphones to spell previously recorded words and answer multiple-choice questions about definitions.

They could earn up to 30 points on four sections: a spelling component, beginning vocabulary component and two advanced vocabulary segments.

"Some of them I had seen before and they were really easy," Lauren said. "There were a couple I hadn't seen before and were still kind of easy. And then there were some that were kind of hard."

Spellers were allowed 45 minutes to complete the 50-question test, but Lauren said she cranked it out in half the time. When she came across a word she didn't recognize, she just tried to identify the prefix and make her best guess.

This is the first year for the vocabulary dimension of the bee. Lauren, who started studying the definitions of words only a month ago, thought that section was the toughest.

The results of the computer test won't be released until this afternoon, but all spellers get to proceed to the first oral round today. The competition will be televised on ESPN3, an online channel, from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. today. 

From now on, it will be a different story: one missed word and competitors hear the dreaded ding of that bell that signifies their disqualification.

However, even those who survive both oral rounds on Wednesday could fail to make it to Thursday's semifinals.

On Wednesday afternoon, spellers will learn their scores on the computer test. The 50 spellers who survive Wednesday's oral rounds and have the highest total scores will advance. 

On Thursday, the semifinals will be televised from 2 to 5 p.m. on ESPN2, and the finals on ESPN from 8 to 10 p.m.

Gene and Stephanie Coccari, Lauren's mom and dad, have helped her study in the evenings since she has arrived at the hotel. But the family has spent more time having fun in the city with the other contestants.

After a quick orientation event Monday morning, Lauren and the rest of the spellers traveled to a cookout at the Pavilions of Turkey Run in McLean, Va. The site offers colonial-style grills, sports and inflatables.

Every speller has been given a "bee keeper" book, Lauren said. It includes a picture of every speller and a brief biography.

"They let us go around and get other spellers' signatures," Lauren said.

After her test Tuesday, Lauren set off with her parents to do a little sightseeing. They took the Metro subway system to the National Museum of the American Indian.

"We all kind of wanted to go there when we were in D.C. last time, but we didn't get time," Lauren said. "So we're doing it now, first thing."

The family hadn't made any plans for today. Lauren is focused on battling her way through the next rounds in the hopes of advancing to the semifinals.

Lauren, who is speller number 275, is slated to appear on stage between 10 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. today.

There are three other competitors from West Virginia, all representing newspaper readership areas: Louis Aldridge, 11, of Bridgeport, representing the Exponent-Telegram of Clarksburg; Aarohi Srivastave, 13, of Morgantown, representing the Dominion Post; and Lillian Taylor Bischof, 12, of Wheeling, representing The Catholic Spirit.

Those three are scheduled for their televised spellings about the same time as Lauren. Any who advances from the first oral round will spell again between 3:15 and 4:45 this afternoon.

Lauren's all-expense-paid trip to the bee is sponsored by the Gazette-Mail, the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association and the College Foundation of West Virginia, or cfwv.com.

She won several other prizes, including a $2,500 college savings account from the state treasurer's SMART529 program.

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher @dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.

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