Kanawha County speller takes regional bee trophy

After more than 20 rounds of intense spelling, Varun Kukkillaya correctly spelled "abysmal" to win the 2014 Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee.

It took another 12 rounds before he could celebrate, though.

Because second and third place spellers, Katie Mills and Teresa Riffle, got out in the same round, a spell-off was needed to determine who would be Kukkillaya's runner-up.

Mills, co-winner for Raleigh County, and Riffle, winner for Jackson County and last year's runner-up, battled it out until Mills took second place by correctly spelling "ghastly."

Mills, a sixth grade home school student, said she was nervous during her spell off with Riffle, but was relieved when it finally ended.

She has participated in spelling bees since she was in fourth grade, but Saturday was her first appearance at the regional bee. She said she will "absolutely" continue competing as long as she is eligible.

Kukkillaya said it was hard to contain his excitement as he sat and watched his fellow competitors spell.

"I was really hyper because I already knew I had won," he said.

The wait was worth it.

Once second and third place were determined, Kukkillaya was officially named the winner.

"I didn't expect to win, but I expected to go pretty far," Kukkillaya said.

He will now go on to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, May 25-31.

He and a parent will stay at the Gaylord National Hotel during an all-expenses-paid trip to National Harbor, Md., which is just outside Washington, D.C.

Kukkillaya also received a $2,500 SMART529 savings account, courtesy of The Hartford. SMART529 is a program of state Treasurer John Perdue.

He also received a Merriam Webster's Third New International Dictionary, a one-year membership to Britannica Online Premium, an engraved plaque that will be permanently displayed in the school and the Samuel Louis Sugarman award, which is a 2014 U.S. Mint proof set.

Kukkillaya, a seventh grader from John Adams Middle, was the Kanawha County co-winner along with Andrew Jackson Middle seventh grader Lauren Volk.

The two were named co-winners after an inconclusive 72-round showdown. A tie was declared when the pronouncer ran out of words, which made it the first in Kanawha County history.

Kukkillaya said the fierce competition in the later rounds of Saturday's bee made him feel like it would once again come to a tie.

Kukkillaya survived a brutal second round that saw 11 spellers leave the stage, though one Wyoming County speller, Kenny Blankenship, was allowed to return when an audio playback revealed he didn't misspell "messenger."

But as the bee went on, Kukkillaya proved triumphant over other spellers who correctly spelled difficult words like "recalcitrant," "eocene," "ampere" and "corpuscle."

Kukkillaya said he is excited he won, but relieved the bee is finally finished. He said he was nervous each time he stepped up to the mic, but thinks it helped him work harder.

After each word was given and no matter the difficulty, Kukkillaya asked for definitions, alternate pronunciations, language origins and for the word to be used in a sentence. He said asking those questions gave him more time to determine correct spellings.

While Kukkillaya displayed his mastery of spelling, his parents said it isn't even their son's primary interest. Kukkillaya actually prefers math, science, chess and robotics.

His father, Radha Kukkillaya, said he has encouraged his son to spell ever since he started doing so in fourth grade.

"I always tell him he is gifted in this," he said.

Kukkillaya has also shown a knack for geography. In two weeks, he will participate in the state National Geographic Bee at Concord University in Mercer County. He said he will take some time off from spelling to focus his studies on the geography bee.

Kukkillaya won't have much time off, but said he feels comfortable participating in both bees despite there being added pressure and material to study.

When asked if he thinks he can win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in May, Kukkillaya said he thinks he can do it.

All participating counties sent two spellers (a winner and a runner-up) to the regional bee. Both Kanawha and Raleigh Counties sent co-winners.

There were 42 spellers registered to participate, but four spellers from Mason, Pocahontas, Mingo and McDowell Counties were not in attendance.

Beverly McCoy, clinical director of Bright Futures Learning Services, was the pronouncer, and WSAZ anchor Amanda Barren served as master of ceremonies.

Carolyn Dorcas, a retired English teacher from Kanawha County, Mark Stotler, director of academic programming for the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, and Letha Zook, provost and dean of faculty for the University of Charleston served as judges.

Mills received a $150 cash prize and Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, and Riffle received $75.

Other sponsors included the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association and Alpha Natural Resources.

The regional bee will be televised by WSAZ's myZ TV April 6 at 1 p.m.

Contact writer Samuel Speciale at sam.speciale@dailymailwv.com or 304-348-4886. Follow him at twitter.com/wvschools.  

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