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West Falls boy overcomes early hurdle to win Spelling Bee

Santino Panzica was nearly felled by the first word he was given Sunday in the 89th annual Buffalo News Spelling Bee, briefly hesitating with the word “boodle.”

“I thought it was b-o-o but I wasn’t quite sure,” he said. “I wanted to say b-u, so I wasn’t positive.”

But the eighth-grader at Immaculate Conception School in East Aurora nailed it and went on to outlast 19 other top spellers from Western New York to win the title.

Santino, 14, of West Falls, correctly spelled “tricephalous” then “catechistic” to edge out runner-up – and last year’s champion – Michael Sobol, an eighth-grader at Saints Peter and Paul School in Williamsville, in a full auditorium at the Buffalo History Museum.

“Really, really surprised,” Santino said of his feelings afterward. “I did not think I would win.”

Other top finishers were Rohan Nag, a sixth-grader at Mill Middle School, in third place; Cameron Crowell, a sixth-grader at Fredonia Middle School, fourth; and Renee Wright, an eighth-grader at Holland Junior-Senior High School, fifth.

Santino and his mother, Carolyn, will travel on an all-expense paid trip, courtesy of The News, to Washington, D.C., to represent The Buffalo News and Western New York in the Scripps National Bee during the last week of May.

“Up to now I’ve mostly just been memorizing words, and I doubt that’ll work as well for the National Spelling Bee,” he said. “So I’ll probably study a lot of root words.”

Success at the National Bee is all about application of language concepts and patterns to correctly spell any of 472,000 words from the dictionary.

But a local Spelling Bee can be difficult even for adults who think they have a good grasp on the English language. Some of Sunday’s finalists were tripped up by such words as “mahout,” “numismatics,” “rasorial” and “monaural.”

Santino, whose favorite subject is math, credited his love of reading and constant prompting from his mother for his success. He was also a finalist in the 2014 bee, but did something different this time, said his father, William.

“This year I think he studied a lot more on his own, as opposed to a few years ago,” he said. “I think we were more involved in this last time. He really ‘stealth-studied’ this time.”

Santino was also accompanied by Joseph P. Duttweiler, an English and Social Studies teacher at Immaculate Conception, who said Santino first expressed an interest in the bee as a fifth-grader.

“He’s an excellent student,” Duttweiler said. “He’s an excellent reader, writer and speller. And he’s multitalented. He’s a musician. He’s very good in science. He’s an all-around top-notch student.”

Santino, who will attend Canisius High School in the fall, is also a classically trained pianist and has published a book of poems, said his father.

“I’m proud in everything he does,” he said. “He’s an amazing kid. He loves to study. That’s all he does, is want to learn. He’s a neat kid.”