BENTON TOWNSHIP — The final round proved brief and breathtaking – but the drama felt no less nerve-wracking for Tuesday’s Cloverleaf Spelling Bee winner, and Grand Champion, Ananya Bommineni.

“It feels amazing, because I worked really hard, and I studied really hard for it, so I’m glad it paid off,” said Ananya moments after capturing her crown at Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center Mainstage.

Ananya, 13, is an eighth-grader at Lakeshore Middle School. She is the daughter of Sudharani and Anjaneyulu Bommineni, of Stevensville.

Ananya took the title after the last remaining competitor, Annika DeJong of Christ Lutheran School, misspelled “cassettes,” a plural noun that refers to magnetic analog tape designed for recording and playback.

Per Cloverleaf rules, Ananya then correctly spelled her final word, “coalition” – a noun meaning “a temporary alliance of distinct parties, persons or states for joint action, or to achieve a common purpose” – to take home the Cloverleaf title.

Ananya now goes on to represent the area in the National Spelling Bee, which is May 26-30, at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, in National Harbor, Md.

Some Ananya’s activities include Science Olympiad, student council and peer tutoring. She also plays percussion in the school band.

Asked for the secret to her success, Ananya responded, “I just read a lot, and I found that really helpful, because many of the words in my books, I’ve seen them pop up in the dictionary rounds.”

Ready to return

Annika, 11, is a sixth-grader at Christ Lutheran, and the daughter of Eric and Sherry DeJong, of Stevensville.

Annika, as this year’s runner-up, took her showing philosophically.

“I’m so happy. I thought I was going to get last place,” Annika said, smiling, “I was really nervous.”

Asked if she plans to return next year – since students can compete through eighth-grade – Annika smiled again: “Hopefully.”

Sherry DeJong suspects her daughter will return next year, too.

“I’m really excited, and I’m amazed that she did so well. She studied really hard. They do it pretty much all school year. Since the beginning, they’ve been studying these words, especially the last couple of weeks,” she said.

Annika offered one other piece of advice for future competitors.

“Ask a lot of questions. It will help you find the word,” she said

Sharing the excitement

Lakeshore Coach Laura Veldman and third place winner Tanishka Jadhav hung around to share in the excitement of Ananya’s victory, once the contest wrapped up around 11:20 a.m.

Tuesday’s event marked a unique turn of events for Tanishka, who had won her school’s spelling bee in January, while Ananya finished third.

“It completely flipped,” Tanishka said, laughing. “Quite a coincidence.”

On Tuesday those roles were reversed, but Tanishka enjoyed her first Cloverleaf event, all the same.

Tanishka, 11, is the daughter of Sunil and Deepali Jadhav of St. Joseph.

“She’s (Ananya) an eighth grader, I’m a sixth grader – and I’m really excited for her, pretty much,” Tanishka said. “We started at the beginning of the year, and have been going ‘til now. I will definitely be doing this next year, as well.”

Veldman also enjoyed coaching her second champion. She coached Sam Stephens, the 2017 champion.

“I’m really excited, and proud of her (Ananya). It was exciting, seeing the Bee (result) two years ago, so it’s neat to know she’s headed there too now (to Washington),” Veldman said.

Competitive pace

Thirty-nine spellers competed from 14 schools in this year’s event, with three spellers allotted per team.

Students earned the right to compete Tuesday by proving themselves as the top spellers in their schools.

The contest proceeded with 500 words, which come down from the national organization, according to Bee Administrator Tonya Snyder.

As ever, words ran the gamut of linguistic origin – from Danish and German (“angst”), to Dutch (“klompen”), Italian (“bravura”), Latin (“triumvirate”), and Spanish (“hacienda,” “machismo”).

Tuesday’s contest took place the Mendel Mainstage, for the first time.

Students started at 8:30 a.m. with one practice round, which didn’t count against them, before getting down to business.

Competitors had to continue spelling their allotted words correctly to stay in the contest.

The most common mistakes included the addition or omission of a key letter, or transposing them – as Tanishka did on her final word, “Tinseltown,” a popular nickname for Hollywood.

“It’s tough with that ‘le (versus ‘el’ spelling),” Veldman noted.

By 10:15 a.m., about 15 spellers remained onstage. Half an hour later, however, the group was down to 10.

As the clock ticked down to 11:05 a.m., only five spellers remained, prompting pronouncer Dawn Howley to suggest a slight change in the seating and staging department.

“Just come up one or two at a time (onstage). That way, you won’t have to stand the whole time,” she said.

Having a smaller than usual group of students – and schools – definitely impacted the pacing of this year’s event, Snyder said.

“Last year, we had 18 schools, so we had 12 fewer students than last year. We ebb and flow on that number,” she said.

Filling those shoes

The contest also proceeded without a vocabulary test to determine the last 20 or so finalists.

Snyder expressed satisfaction with the outcome of that change, which was actually implemented last year for several reasons, including time constraints.

“It keeps the kids more in the mindset of, ‘I’m spelling words.’ Not breaking that concentration, or that focus, is helpful for the students, is my assessment,” she said.

Tuesday’s event also marked Howley’s second as pronouncer – in place of Mark Regazzi – who’s been the voice of the Cloverleaf for more than 20 years.

Howley herself has worked with the Bee since 1981, mostly as a judge.

“I had big shoes to fill with Mark, because he’s just a brainiac,” Howley said. “I love seeing the words when I first get them.”

Former Lakeshore spelling coach Vivian Achterberg; Katie Krawczak, of The Herald-Palladium; and Chris Martin, Berrien RESA language arts consultant, served as this year’s judges.

The Herald Palladium, Cook Nuclear Plant/AEP, Berrien Regional Education Service Agency and Lake Michigan College sponsored this year’s event.

Co-sponsors included Honor Credit Union, Hexco Academic, Pizza Hut of Michigan, Jay Sugarman (an individual donor), and Merriam-Webster.

Top Ten

Here are the top 10 finishers in the Cloverleaf Spelling Bee and the prizes that they earned:

First Place (Grand Champion): Ananya Bommineni (Lakeshore Middle School): $1,450 entry fee to the National Spelling Bee (from the Cloverleaf, and The Herald-Palladium), $1,600 cash towards the trip to Washington, D.C. (Cloverleaf, Cook Nuclear Plant), $700 cash (Cook Nuclear Plant), savings bond (Samuel Louis Sugarman), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (online unabridged), one-year subscription to Encyclopedia Britannica Online (from Encyclopedia Britannica), Valerie’s Supplement (child-sized booklet of 2,500 words, from Hexco Academic).

Second: Annika DeJong (Christ Lutheran School), $200 cash (from Cloverleaf, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (from Merriam-Webster).

Third: Tanishka Jadhav (Lakeshore Middle School), $100 cash (from Cloverleaf), Valerie’s Supplement.

Fourth: Andrew Ferrell (St. Joseph Upton Middle School), $90 cash (from Cloverleaf), Valerie’s Supplement.

Fifth: Betsy Fiesbeck (St. Joseph Upton Middle School), $80 cash (from Cloverleaf).

Sixth: Cole Baldwin (Niles Ring Lardner Middle School), $70 cash (from Cloverleaf).

Seventh: Jezebel Martin-Cary (St. Joseph Lincoln Elementary), $60 cash (from Cloverleaf).

Eighth: Adison Hildebrand (Trinity Lutheran School-Berrien Springs), Michigan Pizza Hut gift certificate.

Ninth: Sanjay Baldeosingh (Lakeshore Middle School), Michigan Pizza Hut gift certificate.

10th: Pihu Sahai (St. Joseph Brown Elementary School), Michigan Pizza Hut gift certificate.