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A t-h-r-i-l-l-er at WCNY: A 19-round spelling showdown in which it’s no ‘s-y-n’ to finish second

Maja Cannavo, the new grade school spelling bee champion of Central New York, had to overcome a major challenge long before she got to Saturday’s final 

Her first test was simply getting her school to take part.

Maja, 13, an eighth grader at the Manlius Pebble Hill School, enrolled there a year ago, after attending the Montessori School of Syracuse. At Montessori, Maja – pronounced “My-yuh” – did well in The Post-Standard/WCNY Spelling Bee. When she learned Manlius Pebble Hill did not participate, she asked Fred Montas, chairman of the English department, if the school might get involved.

“We had never really been aware of it,” said Montas, but he liked the idea, as did Kendall Hoesktra, interim director of the MPH middle school. A year ago, Maja did well enough to make her second appearance in the televised final round with 35 other children from the region.

This year, she won a first-time MPH spelling bee, then again earned her way to the finals at the WCNY studios, in Liverpool.

Maja’s spelling mastery begins with a critical foundation: She is a devoted reader who loves to browse the stacks at the Paine branch library in Syracuse, not far from her Sedgwick home. She also studied diligently for the competition. Sometimes she would lie in bed at night and wonder how it would feel to actually hear her name announced as the winner.

Saturday, after nine rounds, she was a step away from finding out.

The challenge became outlasting a formidable opponent, Brennan Costello, an eighth grader from the West Genesee Middle School.

A scouting report on Brennan:

“She’s a kid who loves to read,” said Jan Chemotti, school librarian at West Genesee. “She’s not afraid to pick up a 300-page book. Other teachers always compliment her on her work ethic, and she’s a strong leader in her class in a very quiet way. You can see how the other kids really respect her.”

Brennan, who also plays piano and violin, went into the finals believing she wouldn’t last very long. She was thrilled just to get there, she said. Still, as Chemotti pointed out, she’s a child who embraces books — she’s especially keen on The Maze Runner trilogy, by James Dashner — and when she got a tough word, she used her knowledge of vocabulary and did her best to sound it out.

“I did a lot better than I expected,” she said.

Round by round, into the 19th round, the girls kept battling. In the spelling bee, you cannot win by default. You’ve got to get a word right to be the winner. There were several moments, for the two finalists, when it seemed as if one was done and the other would prevail.

There are no spectators. The studio is empty except for the competitors, the judges, a scorekeeper, a television commentator and Bill Baker, a longtime radio and television personality who serves as “the pronouncer.” Baker says the word, the definition, the language of origin and any varied pronunciations. At one point, Maja would have become the champion if she could have made it through “crambo,” a word that describes a kind of rhyming game.

Maja thought about it. She got the first six letters right. In an adjacent chamber, where parents and relatives watched on a television monitor, there was a hush as everyone realized how close Maja was to winning.

She took a logical guess: She put a silent “e” on the end. The contest went on.

In this spelling bee, unfortunately, you cannot have a tie. Only one competitor can move on to the national competition in Washington D.C. As the girls dueled, as the contest kept going round after round, many of the adults in the next room – riveted by the drama on the television screen – secretly wished there didn’t need to be a winner and a loser.

Finally, in the 19th round, Maja had another chance to close it out. The word offered to her was “synusia,” which — as Merriam-Webster puts it — is “a structural unit of a major ecological community characterized by relative uniformity of life.” Maja asked for alternative pronunciations. She asked for the language of origin, and Baker told her it was Greek.

She knew, in Greek, “syn” is typically spelled s-y-n. She felt confident in the first three letters. Then she simply spelled “usia” the way she figured it was most logically constructed.

Maja was right. She was Central New York’s new spelling champ.

It was a moment she had literally dreamed about, after she’d drop into sleep following a day of studying. While she felt a rush of happiness, she also felt sympathy for Brennan. They shook hands and told one another, “Good job.”

As for Brennan, she said she didn’t feel badly at all, because she never thought she’d last for as long as she did – and she sensed just how hard her opponent worked at it.

Maja, Brennan said, deserved to win.

Still, you get the feeling that Maja Cannavo and Brennan Costello shouldn’t really be classified as champion and runner-up.

The way to classify them, most accurately, is as our future.�