SIERRA VISTA — After going nine rounds, Luke Perolino, a Willcox Middle School seventh-grader, won the 2020 Cochise County Spelling Bee on Saturday.

Perolino was up against the competition’s second-place speller, Marissa Paz, a Pearce Elementary School eighth-grader, who stumbled in the ninth round when she misspelled “sashay.”

After correctly spelling “university,” followed by “krypton” in the confirmation round, Perolino clinched the spot as Cochise County’s top speller and will be advancing to the state spelling bee in Phoenix on March 21.

The son of Rosalie and Linmer Perolino, Luke credits his parents and English Language Arts teacher Maureen Johnston for helping him study “tough words” to prepare him for Saturday’s competition. He was presented with a trophy and $100 for winning the county competition.

“Some people say I’m smart, but I don’t want to sound arrogant,” he said. “I’ve always been a good speller because I listen carefully to how words are pronounced and then listen to the syllables. I practice sounding them out and pay attention to how words are spelled, especially when I see new words.”

Perolino said he didn’t expect to win the county bee, so the event’s outcome came as “a really neat surprise” for him.

He also said the words were easier than he expected, but anticipates the state competition in Phoenix will be a lot tougher.

“I’m both nervous and excited about the state spelling bee, and will be studying extra hard to get ready for it in the next few weeks,” he said.

In an interview prior to the start of the spelling bee, Paz said she got ready for the competition by studying during her lunch break with her language arts teacher, and has been studying on Friday mornings from 8:30 to 11 for about two weeks.

“I’m nervous about this, but I guess I’m about as ready as I can be,” she said before climbing onto the stage with the other competitions. “I’m just going to do my best.”

Bella Vista Elementary School sixth-grade student Katrina Bonilla came in third after misspelling “supremacy” in the eighth-round. The top three spellers were awarded a trophy and all participants received a medal and certificate.

Saturday’s spellers came from all over Cochise County. While 29 students qualified for the event by winning their school’s competition, three of those qualifiers did not compete.

“This is one of the smallest spelling bees we’ve had since I’ve been involved with it,” said Johanna Scott, who organized the event and served as its coordinator. “These kids did a fantastic job. You could tell they put a lot of effort into getting ready for the competition. Every single one of these kids is a winner in my book,” she said.

Similar accolades were echoed by Melany Edwards-Barton, Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, who served as the event’s pronouncer.

“I am so impressed with these kids,” she said. “They are really brave to get up here in front of all these people and compete under pressure like this.”

For the first time this year, the spelling bee was held at First Baptist Christian Academy, with spellers sitting on the stage while parents, family members and friends filled the church sanctuary.

“When they called and asked if they could hold the spelling bee here, I was excited about the idea,” First Baptist Christian Academy Superintendent Jim Carter said. “It’s an honor for our school to host this year’s 2020 Scripp Spelling Bee for Cochise County.”

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