Contestant No. 1 fell on word No. 1 in round No. 1.

"Writhe."

As did the next on "unkempt."

On and on it went in the brutal opening round of the 46th annual Missoula County Spelling Bee on Thursday afternoon at Hellgate Elementary, a full half of the field of 52 dropping out on their first word.

But in the end, it was a last-minute contestant - an alternate from Target Range - who triumphed through 12 rounds, knocking down word after word: "hassock," "synonym," "hermetically," "geothermal" and, finally, "strudel."

Eighth-grader Claire Hinther is the new county orthography champion.

"She had had a lot of familiarity with the words, which is a good thing because she just found out about this last night," said Ruth Hinther, Claire's mother.

Claire was asked to fill in when the scheduled competitor elected to attend a hockey tournament instead.

And for the eighth-grader, winning was sweet revenge against "sociable."

An easy word for Claire, who tied for third last year at the state spelling bee. But at the Target Range bee, she accidentally began the word with a "c." And once you utter a letter, you can't take it back.

But Claire was letter-perfect Thursday, and will head to the state bee in Billings on March 26. She will be joined by runner-up Harrison Maughan, a C.S. Porter seventh-grader; and bronze medalist Kaegan O'Connor, a seventh-grader from Frenchtown.

Going from the county bee to the state finals "is kind of like going from the pond to the lake or ocean," said the champion speller, who appeared confident each time she stepped up to the microphone.

Her 12 words included only one that really challenged her: "hermetically."

"I knew it, but I hadn't seen that word for a long time," she said, proudly wearing her gold medallion.

A full four-fifths of the spellers fell in the first two rounds alone, tripping up on words like "toxicosis," "elocution," "kinesiology," "silhouette" and "grotesqueness."

Pronouncer Bill Schwanke seemed to sense their frustration, consoling them with "ooh, close" and "that was a hard word" and "you were just one letter off."

Contestants in the final 10 fell on such words as "biopsy," "temporal," "grotto" and "futon," leaving Harrison Maughan and Claire.

Harrison missed by a letter on "permian." By spelling bee rules, the winner must spell the next two words correctly.

And Claire, feeling sociable, nailed "geothermal" and "strudel."

Now, it's back to the books.

"I'm not a serious studier, but I'll go through word lists and roots," she said. "My parents are the ones who make me study, actually."

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