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Spelling bee acrobats juggle letters into words

Click here to see all the Spelling Bee contestants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Teresa Riffle, 12, has an alter ego, Terry Treefrog, as she scours the countryside in search of special hidden boxes.

Drawings and diagrams fill Bobby Wamsley's books, the ideas the 12-year-old boy plans to make a reality when he's old enough.

Brooke Lacy knows it's going to take hard work, but the 10-year-old dancer is confident she'll rock a stage alongside her idol, Taylor Swift, sometime soon.

All three youngsters also happen to be prolific spellers who hope to represent the southern half of the state at this year's National Spelling Bee.

A field of 44 spellers from 22 counties will match their skills at today's Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee at Capital High School.  

The bee is co-sponsored by the West Virginia Automobile & Truck Dealers Association and the College Foundation of West Virginia, or cfwv.com.

Also at stake is a $2,500 college savings account from the SMART529 program.  

The contestants, who earned their berths by taking top honors in county bees, have a wide range of hobbies and aspirations that extend far beyond reading or spelling.

Teresa, a seventh-grader at Ravenswood Middle School in Jackson County, goes by her trail name, Terry Treefrog, when she's participating in one of her favorite activities: letterboxing.

The pastime combines navigational skills and rubber stamp artistry.

Letterboxers take to the outdoors, using directions found on the group's national website. After finding a letterbox, the participant pulls out his or her stamp book and inkpad and records the accomplishment.

Each letterboxer also carries a signature stamp, Teresa said. Using tools she received for Christmas, she carved a frog as her first stamp.

Teresa typically hunts with her aunt and older sister, Michelle, and they've found more than 100 letterboxes. The clues are specific, but that doesn't mean finding them is easy, she explained.

"They'll be things like ... 'go onto the right path when you come up to the second fork on the trail. Walk 30 steps until you see a big oak tree at the right,' " she said. "Or they might have something like, 'Turn a certain number of degrees, take 50 steps in the direction, look under, I don't know, something like a log.' "

While she's confident in her abilities on the trail, the four-time Jackson County spelling bee champion is a little nervous about today's competition.

"You know it's really important. All the other times that I won, I didn't have the opportunity to move on ... I also have more vocabulary that I have studied and memorized," she said. "I think I have a very good shot at it, but I must admit I'm a little bit nervous."  

Bobby Wamsley, the Mason County champion, didn't sound nervous at all when asked how he would fare in the event.

"I think I'm gonna win it. Because this is the second year I've done this, gotten this far. It's really fun," he said.

"I'm a really good speller. I guess it's something natural."

When he's not attending classes at Point Pleasant Junior High School, Bobby likes to tinker and invent.

He entered the county science fair last year with a device that in theory would produce electricity with the help of "a vat of grease," a piece of wood, hinges, steam, bubbles and other materials. It didn't quite work, but he's going to refine his technique and try again.

"It's really fun to make something new. I get a bunch of ideas," he said. "I draw them down, and I keep them somewhere. And it's the blueprints for my inventions, so when I'm older, I can make them."

The ideas just come to him, and he's compelled to put them on paper.

He calls his latest invention the "turtle shell."      

It is a table that can snap into a bulletproof shelter for students at a moment's notice.

"It's a protection thing. It's a table with hydraulics and legs. Two kids can get in there, and get in on their hands and knees," he explained.

"The table folds, it'll drop, the hydraulics will come together. It's like a brace - it'll help build it," he continued. "That'll protect kids whenever an emergency happens."

He wants to go to college so he can invent more stuff. But first, Bobby is happy to participate in the spelling bee, science fair, social studies fair and other school activities. For the most part, they're fun.

"Except for the waiting, of course," he said.

Hanging around on a stage might be a little stressful for Bobby, but it's old hat for Brooke Lacy, Lincoln County's champion. The fifth-grader at Midway Elementary School also is preparing for her ninth dance recital.

"My favorite type of dance would probably have to be jazz," she said, "because you get to strut your stuff, do what you want to do. Show your expressions."

She finds being the center of attention exciting, and that will probably come in handy when she's touring the world as a music icon.

It's a lofty goal that will take some hard work, but Brooke is confident she has what it takes to make it big.

She realizes the job won't be all roses.

"I think it will be tough to be a pop star. Well, sometimes you can lose your voice, but you have to just go out there. And not everybody makes it," she said.

Not everyone can make it as a speller, either. Brooke also won her county bee as a 9-year-old last year, and she thinks the experience will be crucial in today's challenge.

"Well, I like to spell. And when I get up there, I feel like, 'Well, if I win, that would be great!' " she said.

Other bee contestants have a broad spectrum of interests and career goals.  

Michael Fox, 10, a fifth-grader at Valley Elementary School in Fayette County, loves science and wants to be a rocket scientist. Henry Dillon-Whitehead, 13, a seventh-grader at Green Bank Middle School in Greenbrier County, already knows he wants to be a professor of classics.

McDowell County's Marla Brown, 10, a fifth-grader at Kimball Elementary School, wants to be a scientist or a chef. Either one is fine.

All will put their dreams on hold today as they compete for the shared desire of attending the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.  

Participating counties send two spellers each to the regional bee.  

Beverly McCoy, clinical director for Bright Futures Learning Services, will serve as pronouncer, and WSAZ reporter Cathleen Moxley will be the emcee.

Judges are Dr. Letha Zook, provost and dean of the faculty for the University of Charleston; Carolyn Dorcas, a retired high school English teacher; and Dr. Mark Stotler, assistant director of academic affairs for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission.

Spellers are to register by noon. A practice round starts at 1 p.m., and the first round of competition will follow.

Today's winner will advance to the national bee May 26-31 at the Gaylord National Hotel in National Harbor, Md., just outside Washington, D.C. The new champion and a parent will enjoy an all-expense-paid, weeklong trip to the nation's capital.

The champion also will receive a $2,500 SMART529 college savings plan through a program of the West Virginia Treasurer's office, the Samuel Louis Sugarman award (a 2013 U.S. Mint Proof Set), a one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online and a Webster's Third New International Dictionary.

The second-place winner will receive a $150 cash prize and a copy of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. The third-place winner will receive $75 in cash.

Also helping with today's bee are staff members of Capital High and the Kanawha County Schools Community Education Program.

The regional bee will be televised by WSAZ's myZ TV at 1 p.m March 30.

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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