COLUMBIA — Ten expressionless boys with their hands folded in their laps sat before a roomful of anxious and excited onlookers.
They were the 10 finalists out of 100 students who traveled to Columbia from across the state in hopes of winning the 2011 Missouri Geographic Bee.
Top 10 finalists
Friday's state bee was the last step in becoming Missouri's representative at the National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C., at the end of May.
The competition is a nationwide event that encourages fourth- through eighth-grade students to exhibit their knowledge of geography.
"Competing in a situation like this teaches them poise," said Wally Pfeffer, who has volunteered at the state bee for a decade. "It gives them a chance to deal with pressure. It's a good lesson to learn early on."
In order to become one of the 10 finalists at the end of the day, the students were split into five groups of 20 students. The 10 with the highest scores moved on to the final round, Pfeffer said.
Although students came from various schools and towns across the state, the two left standing in the championship round, Rohit Rao and Joshua Vogel, were quite familiar with each other. They had gone head-to-head in the final round in 2010, with Vogel coming out on top.
As the two finalists listened intently to the questions and scribbled their answers on legal pads, the audience watched in anticipation. On the sixth question, Rao gave an incorrect answer, designating Vogel the champion for the second year in a row.
"It's been a long time since we've had someone win twice," Pfeffer said.
Vogel, an eighth-grader at Trinity Lutheran School in Cape Girardeau, has competed in the competition for the past five years.
While he did not study for the state bee last year, he said he has been preparing for Friday's bee every day since December by studying atlases.
"I had set high standards for myself since I won last year," he said. "I've turned out to be pretty good at it."
Rao, an eighth-grader at Jefferson Junior High School in Columbia, said he knew there was a chance he would face Vogel again in the final round, so he studied atlases and took online and book quizzes.
"I've always had an interest in geography," Rao said. "I like learning about cultures, and it was a good experience."
He said he is a little disappointed, but added that "losing is life."
Vogel will compete for the national title on May 24-25 in hopes of winning a $25,000 college scholarship, a lifetime membership in the National Geographic Society and a trip to the Galapagos Islands.
Tim Hill, the state bee coordinator, said the competition is an opportunity for students to learn a new subject and remain poised under pressure.
"The bee is designed to give children an interest in geography," Hill said.
Touching the medal around his neck, Vogel said he is going to celebrate his win by studying for nationals.
"I'm just kind of taking it all in," he said.