By MAGGIE GEBHARDT

mgebhardt@dailynews.net

Knowledge, poise and concentration were tested during the Sunflower Spelling Bee at Beach/Schmidt Performing Arts Center in Sheridan Hall at Fort Hays State University on Saturday.

The national qualifying bee featured 80 spelling participants from around the state of Kansas.

ITC Holding Corp. was the primary sponsor of the event. Other sponsors were Sunflower Electric, The Hays Daily News and Midwest Energy.

Brett Leopold, ITC president, said ITC Holding Corp. likes to sponsor educational activities.

"There is no better event to promote education across the state of Kansas than the Sunflower Spelling Bee," he said. "We thought it was a good match for ITC to be involved with."

Leopold is a native of Hoxie and participated in the Sheridan County spelling bee in seventh and eighth grade, qualifying for state both years.

"It requires a lot of hard work and when they arrive, it requires a lot of poise," he said. "It's good for them to learn to participate in activities in front of an audience with the spotlight on them."

Leopold said the Sunflower Spelling Bee is a unique event that teaches educational qualities, public presentation and composure.

"It will serve them well in the future," he said.

Risking the potential chance of elimination, spellers took turns stepping up to the microphone in front of a panel of judges as they carefully attempted words.

A great deal of preparation was required before performing at such a prestigious level.

"I got onto the website and wrote down a lot of words to study," said eighth grader Brecken Vandenhoek, Neosho County. "It's really competitive."

Eighth grader Amanda Cheney, Thomas County, said she participated in the Sunflower Spelling Bee two years ago and was eliminated in the first round. She had high hopes to make it further this time. "I enjoy participating because I think it helps me speak better in front of people," she said. "It helps me enunciate words better, too."

"We're really proud of her," said her mother, Lyn. "We don't have a lot of kids from our school that make it this far."

Excited for his first time participating at this level, third-grader Blake Amren, Miami County, said he was nervous and shaking, but would take some deep breaths and would be all right.

"I'm ready," he said. "My mom has been helping me practice."

Ellis County eighth-grader Mac Hayes said he was nervous, but trying not to stress out about it.

"I think it's good to be able to stand up and present yourself in a nerve-racking situation," said Hayes' mother, Kaira. "I have been encouraging him to study."

Hayes' teacher at Ellis Junior High, Brenda Rose, attended the event in support.

"I have tried to introduce them to a lot of literature and I think it helps them expand their horizons when it comes to spelling and vocabulary," she said.

The Sunflower Spelling Bee went on for 30 rounds.

Second runner-up and winner of a $200 prepaid Visa gift card and a second-runner up medal was eighth-grader Sterling Holland, Leavenworth County.

Holland was the 2013 and 2014 Sunflower Spelling Bee reigning champion.

Runner up and winner of a $400 prepaid visa gift card, a Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and a runner up medal was eighth grader Elizabeth Joseph, Johnson County.

After correctly spelling the word "weissnichtwo," first-place finisher and winner of a Merriam-Webster Third New International Dictionary, a family paid pass to Sternberg Museum of Natural History, a one-year online membership to Encyclopedia Britannica, a laptop, a championship medal and a paid trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in the 2015 Scripps Spelling Bee was fifth-grader Kushala Madduru, Johnson County.

"I'm feeling good," Madduru said after the win. "It feels awesome."

"I had to study a lot of lists and it was really hard, but I got through it," she said.

The 10-year-old said the event was nerve-wracking but fun at the same time.

"It was a nice competition," she said. "Going to Scripps National makes me nervous, but I can't wait."

The national spelling bee competition is in May.