Three-time all-school spelling bee champion Josie Spanier has been drilling for months with her eyes on the prize — a spot on stage at the televised Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

So the Minneapolis seventh-grader was crushed to learn that the 7-County Metro Area Regional Spelling Bee that would qualify her for nationals may be canceled this year. It has lost its sponsor and no one else has stepped ­forward to take over.

"Most other families have Little League tournaments or sports teams," said her mother, Kristine Spanier. "In our family, the Spelling Bee is our Little League tournament. It's just as exciting and important to our family."

There's still a glimmer of hope, officials with the national competition said Friday.

If a sponsor steps forward by Jan. 31, that would be enough time to plan a regional spelling bee this spring, said Scripps spokeswoman Valerie Miller.

"Our bee team has made efforts to recruit an organization in your area. So far, they have not been able to find that right match," Miller said.

Nashville has the same issue, she said. "There is the financial part of it, but there is a lot of goodwill," Miller said. "Everyone loves the bee."

Augsburg College sponsored the tournament for three years, which includes paying for the winner to travel to the national bee. Before that, a law firm sponsored the spell-off.

Augsburg officials said they dropped the sponsorship to focus on events for their ­students.

More than 11 million children take part in some level of the Spelling Bee each year, with about 285 competing at the prestigious national tournament. The bee, started in 1925, is the longest-running educational program in the nation.

While most of the national competitors qualify by winning regional sponsored bees, Miller said, there are other paths to Washington. If there are no regional tournaments, school and district spelling champions can pay a $3,450 entrance fee and travel expenses to go to the national bee.

For many Twin Cities spelling champs, however, that's not feasible and it feels like buying a spot.

"To pay our way into the national bee, it doesn't seem fair," Spanier said. "I would want her to earn her position in the bee in a traditional way."

For now, children and parents are wrestling with dashed dreams.

Instead, a pizza party

Students and parents at Highland Park Middle School in St. Paul heard the bad news immediately before the school's spelling bee Thursday. More than 70 kids took part in the spelling bee, and the disappointment was palpable.

"We have some hard core spellers who are super competitive," said Principal Charlene Hoff. "It brings forward great exuberance with the kids."

English teacher Adayle Andrews, who coordinates the Highland bee, delivered the news to students, many of whom who had been asking for study material since ­September.

"As a teacher, it was a really hard message to communicate to the students. … It was disappointing. It still is disappointing," Andrews said "I could see it on their faces. I kept reminding them it's about the spirit of the event."

The school will celebrate its bee winners with a pizza party this year, instead.

Marta Shore said that her daughter Greta Shore, a three-time all-school champion, raised an eyebrow at the announcement. Greta, a Highland eighth-grader, competed at the Augsburg regionals for two years.

Marta Shore said it was disheartening to learn that the most direct path to nationals might be eliminated for thousands of Twin Cities spellers who have been studying and practicing.

"You see the Spelling Bee on ESPN2," she said. "[For students] to be in the situation that [they] can't even potentially go is a little frustrating."