After hearing the word that potentially would earn her a trip to Washington, D.C., as the Maine state spelling champion, Naomi Zarin grimaced and turned to the two boys and one girl who had misspelled in the previous round.

“You guys have a pretty good chance,” she said.

Zarin proceeded to ask several questions of pronouncer Jeannine Uzzi about the resin used in varnishes and printing ink that has long been burned as incense during ceremonies in Central America. Uzzi also provided two alternate pronunciations.

Zarin, an eighth-grader from Gray who attends Friends School of Portland and won the Cumberland County bee in February, thought for a bit. She clutched her left arm in her right hand, and turned to the panel of three judges.

“C-O-P-A-L,” she said.

After 42 rounds and nearly three hours, Zarin was crowned champion of the Maine State Spelling Bee on Saturday afternoon inside Hannaford Hall on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.

“I had never heard it before,” Zarin said of her winning word. “Once I heard the alternate pronunciations, I was a little more sure, but I really didn’t know how to spell it.”

A year ago, Zarin was runner-up to Syra Gutow of Castine in a state bee that lasted 57 rounds. This year, three students wound up in a tie for second place after spelling correctly through 40 rounds before stumbling in the 41st: Brady Holmes, an eighth-grader from Ashland District School representing Aroostook County; Colin Aponte, a home-schooled seventh-grader representing Hancock County; and Nina Dabas, a fifth-grader at Waterville’s Mount Merici Academy representing Kennebec County.

All three were making their first appearance at the state bee, although Aponte is the younger brother of 2013 state champion Brandon Aponte and soaked in the nerds-are-cool vibe of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, scheduled this year from May 28 to June 3 in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. The finals are to be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

“It was a really cool experience,” Colin Aponte said Saturday afternoon. “That’s my biggest motivation, is to try to get back there.”

Aponte appeared imperturbable throughout 39 rounds Saturday, thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his cuffed jeans, rarely asking any questions beyond language of origin, and delivered his letters in the same measured cadence.

Not until Round 40, when organizers of the bee began using a list of words selected from Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary instead of those from the Spell It! study list made available by Scripps, did Aponte appear the least bit nervous. He worked his way through “oncology” but missed the schwa in “quadrilingual.”

Fourteen spellers, each a county champion, had begun the competition shortly after 2 p.m. Sixteen rounds whittled the field to five, who spelled perfectly for 15 more rounds before Sam Hanson, an eighth-grader from Berwick Academy representing York County, went out on “schnecke,” a cinnamon bun derived from German.

That left Holmes, Zarin, Aponte and Dabas, the fifth-grader, whom the audience found especially engaging.. The letters often came out so quickly from Dabas that head judge Michael Ashmore once asked her to repeat a spelling because he couldn’t keep up with her.

Upon hearing her first word, “mosque,” Dabas asked, “Is this an a-RAY-bic word?”

Dabas, 11, guessed most of the languages of origin, asking Uzzi for confirmation more than information. She finally fell on “jactance,” offering an “i” instead of the second “a.”

“Now that I think about it, I should have spelled it that way,” she said later, still sounding ebullient. “I feel disappointed that I didn’t spell that word, but you know, I can come back next year.”

Indeed, spellers remain eligible until entering ninth grade. Holmes said he only began studying in earnest for the state bee after winning his school bee in January, working with a teacher during lunch and with his older sister Haleigh, a ninth-grader, at home.

“Obviously, I wish I could have gotten first, but second, it’s good for me,” he said. “Because before, I hadn’t made it to the state bee. I had just made it to the county bee. So it felt good.”

Holmes’ downfall was “scaup,” a diving duck with word origins in Scandinavia.

“I feel bad,” Zarin said, “because two of the words from off-list, the ones that Brady and Nina had, I didn’t know them. So it really was a lot of luck.”

In the round that felled her three nearest competitors, Zarin received “optimum.”

In earlier rounds, she resorted once to finger-writing on her arm for “accommodate” – “It wasn’t that hard, but the consonants, whether they’re double or not, I have to visualize that” – and had some anxious moments with “Backstein,” a German cheese.

She said she has never been to Washington, and is particularly looking forward to visiting the Spy Museum.

Oh, and what does “copal” mean again?

“Some sort of fruit maybe?” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know.”

The spelling bee was sponsored by the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Morning Sentinel and the Kennebec Journal.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

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