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BLOOMINGTON - Max Nelson strove for three years to win second place in the annual McLean County spelling bee, but the Bloomington Junior High School student set his aim at first place this time.

He succeeded this year.

Nelson, 12, won The Pantagraph Spelling Bee sponsored by Busey Bank on Thursday at Illinois Wesleyan University's Westbrook Auditorium in Presser Hall.

The Bloomington Junior High School seventh-grader stood alone in the eighth round after 42 participants spelled 118 words in less than two hours.

Now he is setting his sights on The Pantagraph Grand Final Spelling Bee sponsored by Busey Bank. The winner of that bee, which draws the top spellers from DeWitt, Livingston, McLean, and Logan counties, will advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

"I think that's everyone's goal," Nelson said of the spellers heading to the Grand Final. But that wasn't the case for him previously.

"I always came into these bees going for second," he said.

He said he couldn't hope for first place as long as Ashwini Gokhale was competing, but now she is too old to compete. She won both the McLean County and Grand Final bees three years in a row.

The son of Eric and Angie Nelson of Bloomington placed sixth at the McLean County spelling bee last year and second to Gokhale in the Grand Final last year.

The second-place winner, Michael Kistner, was knocked out by a whale of a word.

He had just been reading "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville, so he had to smile when he got his last word: "leviathan."

While he knew the word refers to a whale, he had to guess at the second-to-last letter. He guessed incorrectly.

Still, he was happy with Nelson's old spot because it also qualifies him for the Grand Final. "I didn't expect to get into the top 15," the 13-year-old son of David and Molly Kistner said of his first county bee.

"I definitely studied, and I'm a good guesser," said the Holy Trinity Junior High School student.

Other McLean County winners who will compete March 11 in the Grand Final are:

Fourth-grader Sidney Ochsner, Pepper Ridge Elementary.

Fifth-graders Alex Sunkel, Bent Elementary; Deirdre Ogden, Ridgeview Elementary; Azlyn Lusher, Stevenson Elementary; Breeann Dawson, Prairieland Elementary; and Mary Perhai, Colene Hoose Elementary.

Sixth-graders Bryson Barth, Calvary Baptist Academy; and Devin Burlington, LeRoy Elementary.

Seventh-grader Zach Jackson, LeRoy Junior High

Eighth-graders Ian Ford, Lexington Junior High; Darin Wargo, Ridgeview Junior High; Andi Schweers, Heyworth Junior High; Alison Spence, Kingsley Junior High.

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