Jae Canetti approached the microphone at the Fairfax County Spelling Bee like a batter stepping up to the plate, looking to knock each word out of the park.
If words were pitches, Jae would be batting a thousand. The 12-year-old spelled every word he faced correctly on the way to his third consecutive win in the county competition.
The sixth-grader at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston outlasted 55 other spellers from grades three through eight on March 13 at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax.
After facing the word sabermetrics - the statistical analysis of baseball data - en route to victory, the Little League baseball player and avid Washington Nationals fan couldn’t help but compare spelling with his favorite sport.
“You’ve got the competitiveness, and everyone’s got their adrenaline running,” Jae said. “You need to have good skills and a good strategy to do well.”
Jae has his strategy down to a science.
Like a baseball player eyeing a pitch, Jae said, he looks for clues in each word. After hearing a word, he then asked bee pronouncer Blake Giddens every question allowed to spellers, from the word’s definition to its language of origin and more.
“I ask every single thing,” Jae said. “You want to get all the information you can.”
The spelling bee champions from individual schools had received a 300-word study list to prepare for the county bee, and Jae memorized that list. But after six rounds, the contestants had already burned through those terms.
After that, with 18 spellers still remaining, the contest moved beyond rote memorization.
“You have to really know your word roots, your parts of speech,” Jae said. “It’s not just learning the lists.”
In round 10, the word “idiopathic” almost tripped Jae up. The 12-year-old needed to call on every tool at his disposal.
“I couldn’t remember if it started ‘idio-’ or ‘ideo-’ so I had to use the etymology and certain hints to make a guess,” Jae said.
His father Craig Canetti added: “It’s guessing, but it’s educated guessing.”
Still, after several rounds of particularly tricky terms, Jae got a huge smile on his face in round 12 for “sabermetrics.”
”I cannot tell you how good it feels, when you’ve just guessed a word and you’re freaking out, and then you get one you know,” Jae said. “I just had this complete burst of relief.”
That confidence boost helped carry him through the end of the competition.
The very next round saw the two other remaining contestants, eighth-grader Katherine Taylor from Angelus Academy and fifth-grader Subhiksha Balaji from Greenbriar West Elementary, misspell “nimbed” and “duchy,” respectively.
Jae stepped up to spell “brockage” to close out that round, and then the championship word, “fluctuant,” to win the eighth annual Fairfax County Spelling Bee.
Now, Jae will head for the third time to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which this year will be held May 25-31 at National Harbor’s Gaylord Hotel.
Last year, as a fifth-grader, Jae came in 43rd out of 281 contestants in the national contest, not quite matching his 22nd place finish as a fourth-grader in 2012. But he isn’t too worried about the results.
“Nationals is actually less competitive than the county bee, and a lot more about getting to know everyone else,” Jae said. “It’s not easy to get there. So you want to do well, but you want to have fun.”
The Fairfax County Spelling Bee is co-sponsored by the Fairfax Times and the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.