When the announcer asked him to spell pompadour, all Andrew Risinger could do was visualize the outdated hairstyle he observed while watching an old Bob Hope movie in French class at Patapsco Middle School.
A moment later, the eighth-grader was correctly spelling the word. Then came the applause. The 13-year-old from Ellicott City was the 2008 Howard County Library Spelling Bee champion.
His family, seated in the second row of Howard High School's auditorium Friday night, leapt into the air with excitement. His father, Brad, steadied a digital camera perched on a tripod as a wave of flashes from the crowd hit the stage.
"I was just praying that he would stay focused," said Andrew's mother, Beth.
"I didn't expect him to spell it correctly," said his grandmother, Darlene Floss, who was adjusting her digital camera to capture photos of Andrew holding the trophy. "I didn't know how to spell it. I would have added an o-u-r."
Andrew later acknowledged that he was "scared" during most of the competition. "I didn't want to get eliminated on any easy words," he said.
He defeated 57 competitors - from grades four through eight - representing 36 elementary and 16 middle public schools and six private schools. He earned a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip to the National Spelling Bee, scheduled May 29 and 30 in Washington.
After 13 rounds, Andrew and Shourjya Mookerjee, a seventh-grader at Patuxent Valley Middle, were the last two competitors. They correctly spelled their next three words.
Shourjya began Round 17 by incorrectly spelling ambrosial. Andrew correctly spelled the word, then won the competition when he spelled pompadour.
It was a rousing end to the county's fourth bee, a 2 1/2 -hour event that attracted an array of county officials who observed or volunteered.
Brian Auger, deputy executive director of the Howard County Library, served as pronouncer. The panel of judges included school board members Frank Aquino, Ellen Flynn Giles and Diane Mikulis and County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty.
County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who had served as a judge since the countywide competition started in 2005, was sidelined because of a cold. But she did not let the illness keep her from watching.
"I love the bee," she said. "I'm here to watch and cheer them on."
Del. Frank S. Turner and County Executive Ken Ulman also were in attendance.
Through the bee, the words varied in degree of difficulty. Contestants breezed through character and tragic in Round 1. But sputnik and wiseacre drew groans from the audience because of the perceived difficulty. The opening round saw spellers stumble over fiend and anchovy.
Some contestants relied on techniques to help spell a tricky word. Rebecca Fritz, a sixth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, traced her word on the back of her name tag with her finger. It worked when she correctly spelled ingenious.
From Rounds 2 to 16, the offerings ranged from bellicose to lederhosen to guillotine.
Shourjya, who enjoys playing basketball and wants to be a cardiovascular surgeon or an aerovascular engineer when he grows up, said he intends to try again next year.
"I have a knack for spelling," said Shourjya, who placed fourth in last year's competition. For this year's runner-up finish, he won a $750 scholarship, a trophy and a copy of Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
Andrew, who said he is a voracious reader, said he favors science magazines and fantasy books. "I read just about everything," said Andrew, who also loves math, science, computers and basketball.
The eldest of three boys, he prepared for the contest by reviewing words from Spell It!, the competition's official study booklet from Scripps Howard. He studied 45 minutes a day for the two weeks leading up to the event.
Andrew said he plans to review as many past Spell It! lists as possible before competing in the National Spelling Bee. He also plans to review the book How To Spell Like A Champ.
"It's a lot of luck," he said.
Here are champions of the four Howard County spelling bees and their winning word:
2008: Andrew Risinger, pompadour
2007: Heather desJardins-Park, symbiosis
2006: Joey Haavik, zoroastrian
2005: Priyanka Chavan, piebald