It took an assist from author Tom Clancy to get Darren Baker, Utah's champion speller, into Thursday's final rounds of the 71st Annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee, but an obscure ox-like animal native to Asia and parts of Africa spelled doom for the West Jordan teenager.

Baker, 14, was one of 86 spellers from all 50 states, Guam, Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Europe and American Samoa, to survive Wednesday's opening rounds in the National Spelling Bee and make it into the elite competition and a shot at the $10,000 first prize. It was a grueling six-hour process that whittled the field of 249 contestants into a manageable group for Thursday's finals.The nimiety (Baker's first word, which means excess or redundancy) of the process took its toll on the contestants, including the pre-event favorite, Prem Trivedi, a New Jersey eighth-grader who was last year's runner-up and who was competing in his fourth national tournament. And who could fault him for feeling preeminent (his second word, which means excelling or surpassing) as the day's event progressed. And if he had the illusion that the event was becoming senescent (his third word, which means growing old, and which he picked up last week while reading Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October") after some 5 1/2 hours on stage, other contestants probably had similar sensations.

His success in spelling senescent, which pushed him into Thursday's competition, a first for a Utah contestant, surprised his mom and dad, who were sitting in the audience. Both Roger and Linda Baker were sure their son didn't know the word. When dad asked his son how he knew the word, Darren told about picking up the Clancy novel last week on the chance that it might provide him with some new words that he might encounter in the spelling bee. That he would be reading such material came as no surprise to his mother, who noted Darren has been an avid reader since age four.

But, alas, the thriller involving a renegade Russian submarine captain intent of defecting to the United States didn't have a zebu (pronounced zee-byoo) on board, as might have been the case with Noah and his ark. Darren went with an "i" instead of an "e" and the bee was over for the plucky Utahn, who finished 39th overall.

But the trip to Washington, paid for by the Deseret News, the local sponsor of the state spelling competition, was more than just standing, spelling, sitting and waiting. On Wednesday, Darren was whisked around town by KSL-TV for a story that appeared on Wednesday night's newscast. He also spent time with Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, touring the Capitol, arriving at the spelling bee site just one hour before the start of competition. After Wednesday's preliminaries, KTVX-TV also wanted to do some sound bites for its Wednesday news broadcast.

The spellers and their families spent a week in Washington touring and attending various get-togethers leading up to the event itself.

Lists for the 1998-99 Deseret News Utah Spelling Bee will be sent out in early September to school district coordinators for distribution. Anyone wanting more information should call the Deseret News community relations department at 237-2136.