It started off slowly -- a few contestants losing their seats over words like "pious" and "secrete."
But less than two hours later, the original group of 20 middle schoolers had been decimated by such spectacularly difficult vocabulary challenges as "euphonious," "gaufrette," "catenate" and "endostracum."
In the end, only Elma seventh-grader Anthony Pivarunas was still standing.
Family members packed the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society auditorium Sunday, sitting in tense silence for two hours as the best spellers from Western New York faced off at the 79th annual Buffalo News Spelling Bee.
With every pupil's hitch and hesitation broadcast from the stage microphone, audience members found themselves flooded with quiet anxiety. Tension mounted, only to be periodically broken with collective sighs of relief, nervous laughter or murmurs of sympathy.
Eventually, the field of 20 was narrowed to two stellar contestants: James Gilfert, a seventh-grader from Immaculate Conception in Wellsville, and Anthony, a seventh-grader from Children of Mary Homeschool, Elma.
Anthony had dodged disqualification earlier in the competition when he correctly spelled out "filamentary," guessing that the word ended in a-r-y instead of e-r-y.
In the final round, James found himself confronted with the word "obsequy." He hesitated, nervously twisting the blue-striped cuffs on the button-down shirt beneath his navy cardigan.
Then he spelled the word with an "i" instead of an "e."
Anthony quietly stepped forward to end the match. He correctly spelled obsequy, then went on to spell "eustachian" with such confidence that the word giver had to interrupt him before he started so she could give him the word in the context of a sentence.
He won. He accepted a loud round of applause with simple, very pleased grin.
As the local champion, he and an adult companion will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., where he will compete on May 28 in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He also receives a $100 cash award, $50 in expense money for the trip to Washington and an engraved pen and pencil set.
Anthony said he was nervous the first few spelling rounds but eventually calmed down.
"I expected to do fairly well," he said, "but I didn't expect to win."
He had reason to be somewhat confident. Anthony said he had been gunning for this year's spelling bee after earning second place in his school spelling bee last year as a sixth-grader.
He has been studying for this year's school and regional spelling bees since November. His grandfather in Chicago quizzed him on spelling words for 45 minutes every weekday afternoon, he said. And when his grandfather couldn't do it, his parents would.
Anthony said he looks forward to heading to the nation's capital to compete because he has never been there before. He said he expects the competition there to be "a lot tougher than it is here."
He's not certain what career path he wants to pursue when he grows up but said, "I'm thinking I might want to become a doctor."
The remaining top finishers besides Anthony and James, who received cash awards Sunday, include: Kelsey Shea, an eighth-grader at Shea Homeschool in Buffalo; Jessica Briatico, a Depew Middle School eighth-grader and Robert Seager, a Wilson Middle School eighth-grader.