COLUMBIA CITY — Columbia City High School’s Spell Bowl team’s performance Saturday spelled victory when it defended its state championship title at Purdue University.

It’s the first time in CCHS history that the school won back-to-back titles. Last year was the first time CCHS won since 1988.

The team is led by Dennis Beckner, who began as an Indian Springs Middle School coach 12 years ago. When the position at CCHS became available three years ago, Beckner stepped in to take it. The team made an appearance at the state final each of those three years, placing seventh three years ago and winning the last two.

The CCHS Spell Bowl team celebrates winning the Northeast 8 Conference trophy for the third year in a row at Leo Jr./Sr. High School.

Three of the seniors on the CCHS team started as sixth graders with Beckner at ISMS.

Beckner called Saturday’s state finals a “nail-biter” as Northwood and Columbia City were tied. The winner was determined by which team spelled the most tie-breaker words correctly.

“We were tied going in — we knew it would be tight,” Beckner said.

Columbia City has gone head-to-head with teams from larger schools, such as Homestead, and won. The spellers were Northeast 8 Conference champions and area champions.

By winning the area meet and scoring in the top percentage of area meet winners, CCHS was selected to compete at state. Of the more than15 area meet champions, only six teams were selected to advance to state.

Columbia City’s talent for spelling has as much to do with attitude as it does practice, Beckner said.

“They are determined,” said Beckner.

The spellers practice two nights a week after school, beginning the week after school starts in the fall and continuing through the state meet. Spell Bowl is sponsored by an association of Indiana school principals, which provides a list of 2,640 words that will be used in competition that season. Then, the spellers get to work.

Beckner said the students work hard in practice, but put in a lot of time outside of practice as well.

“Some of them write the list of words several times throughout the season,” Beckner said. “We work on pronunciation. I quiz them every week.”

Quizzes are used to determine which 10 spellers will be selected to compete in the next competition. Last year, the team had 13 spellers; this year there were 11.

Unlike a spelling bee, spell bowl is a team competition, which gives spellers some of the same life lessons learned through athletics — teamwork and perseverance.

“Several people ask why a student should be on a spell bowl team — with spell check, there’s a lot we feel like we don’t need to know,” Beckner said. “It’s more than spelling ability — its expanding vocabulary, it helps them in reading, they use these words in their academic papers. It really expands their knowledge of words.”

Beckner starts recruiting new members at the end of their fifth-grade school year, reaching out to elementary school teachers for suggestions on their top spellers.

Some schools in the area, such as Coesse Elementary School, have elementary school-level spell bowl teams.