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Written test foils WNY’s contestant in National Spelling Bee

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – At first, it seemed like the National Botany Bee for Michael Sobol, of Amherst, The Buffalo News entrant in the Scripps National Spelling Bee – and for a while, at least, it looked as if everything was coming up roses for him.

Michael correctly spelled “magnolia” in the bee’s second round Wednesday morning,, and in the afternoon, he followed that with a deft and perfect spelling of another word relating to plants: “frumentaceous,” which, in addition to being used by people who plan spelling bees, refers to anything made of or resembling wheat or another grain.

Michael’s hopes of blooming into the nation’s spelling champ wilted, however, late Wednesday afternoon when the bee’s organizers announced the results of the first-round spelling and vocabulary test that the bee’s 283 spellers took Tuesday.

Michael scored a 21 on the written test, meaning that he fell eight points short of qualifying as one of the 49 semifinalists. Michael was by no means alone: In fact, the written test prevented 165 of the spellers from moving on to the second day of competition, while only 69 lost out by misspelling a word from the stage.

“I thought it was really hard,” Michael, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at SS. Peter & Paul School in Williamsville, said of the written test. “It was mainly the vocabulary part. They put more emphasis on the vocabulary.”

Michael’s failure to make the cut – which is common among 12-year-old first-time bee contestants – came in spite of a lot of hard work.

Michael started this year’s competition by winning his school bee. Then he aced The News’ written spelling test, which consists of finding 100 misspelled words throughout a series of sentences.

Then in March came The News bee, which Michael won by correctly spelling “rugulose,” a more politically correct word for “wrinkly.”

Michael followed his win with a hard regimen of study. On a nightly basis, he pored over lists of words that might appear at the bee. Every time he encountered a word he didn’t know, he would write it down three times, and then ask his parents to quiz him on those misses over the next couple of days.

In the meantime, he would study spelling patterns associated with particular languages of origin, aiming to get a more instinctive feel for how to spell words he didn’t know.

How much time did it all take?

“You spent more time in the weeks before the bee,” said Michael’s mother, Bobbi Sobol, who attended the bee with Michael’s father, David Sobol. “I’d say in the last couple of weeks, it’s been a couple hours a day.”

And to hear Michael tell it, the hard work has just begun. Asked if he planned to enter next year’s round of bees in hopes of returning to the national contest, he replied: “Definitely.”

“I’ll come tomorrow and watch and type up words” to jump-start next year’s learning process, he said.