Upper St. Clair middle-schooler captures regional spelling bee

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After a finals competition of 20 rounds, 240 words and nearly 3 1/2 hours, it came down to this:


Suneel Banerjee spelled it without hesitation Saturday, winning the Western Pennsylvania Spelling Bee and the right to represent the region in a national competition in Washington, D.C., in May.

The 13-year-old's feat was stupendous -- to borrow a word from round eight -- considering he studied for the bee only one night.

"I wasn't really that confident," Suneel, an eighth-grader at Fort Couch Middle School in Upper St. Clair School District, said. "I felt as though I should have prepared more."

The 64th annual bee, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and hosted by Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, drew about 110 elementary- and middle-grade students from schools as far away as Cambria County.

One out-of-town contestant said her family came into town Friday and stayed overnight. Another said she rose at 4 a.m. to make it to Lawrenceville for the competition. After a series of morning semifinals, a field of 34 took the stage for the afternoon finals.

The finals competition was unusually strong, said head judge Dave Toma, who twice instructed the announcer, WQED's Rick Sebak, to move to more difficult sections of the official word list.

"I didn't want it to last six hours," said Mr. Toma, who eventually had contestants spell words taken from a dictionary.

Last year's winner chose not to participate this year, so it was anyone's to event to win. Last year's runner-up, Marcus Huetter, a student at St. Patrick School in Canonsburg, incorrectly spelled "utilizable" in round 10.

By the beginning of the 12th round, only Suneel and Helena McDonald, 12, a seven-grader at Dorseyville Middle School in Fox Chapel Area School District, remained. Having lived in Rome for four years, she said, this was her first opportunity to take part.

With the two still going strong in round 15, Mr. Toma told them, "Both of you are very deserving of representing Western Pennsylvania" in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

In round 17, Helena misspelled "silentiary," and the crowd, fittingly, held its breath. But Suneel incorrectly spelled his own word, "volitorial," so Helena's hopes soared again.

Three rounds later, Helena misspelled "prolusory." Suneel correctly spelled "abactor" and then one more word, "unadulterated," to win the bee. He had his mom to thank for it.

A parent volunteer who helped to organize the spelling bee at another Upper St. Clair school, Teah Banerjee said she wouldn't have felt right if her son didn't participate in his own building's competition. He signed up one Tuesday and won two days later, qualifying him for Saturday's bee.

Suneel, who skipped the third grade, said a string of exams last week kept him from studying for the bee. If he lacked confidence, it didn't show. He didn't even invoke his right to have Mr. Sebak give the origin of words or use them in sentences.

He said he just sounded out the words in his head.

The bee employed words from various cultures, music, the animal kingdom, science and international politics. Mahak Sethi, 13, an eighth-grader at Pine-Richland Middle School, said she enjoys "words in application."

While it was difficult to spell in front of a crowd, she said, "when you get it right, it feels really good."

The bee is a regional tradition. Eric Weimerskirch, a long-ago entrant, was on hand as his daughter, Leah, 12, a sixth-grader at Elizabeth Forward Middle School, competed in the semifinals Saturday.

Leah said she's interested in word construction. Her dad had other reasons for participating many years ago.

"I was the only boy, and all the girls were doing it," he said.

Joe Smydo: jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.

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