Spell-bound: County’s champion speller takes on best in state

Warren County’s spelling champion took on the best in western Pennsylvania this weekend.

Jason Bonavita, an eighth grader at Beaty Warren Middle School, competed Saturday at the 67th Annual Western Pennsylvania Spelling Bee at Robert Morris University after winning the Warren County School District Spelling Bee in February.

He made it into the finals, with 29 other students from the initial group of 107.

It was his first trip to the bee and he didn’t know quite to expect. Once he did, he felt good about his chances.

There were four semifinal groups. Ten of the 30 students in Bonavita’s group would move on. “You had to eliminate 20 kids,” he said. “When I was introduced to it, I felt like I would make the finals.”

His confidence was justified as he made his way through a list of words that included some weather phenomena — monsoon and tsunami — without hearing the bell that indicated an incorrect response.

“The words in the semifinal were fairly familiar,” Bonavita said. In the final round, “the words were definitely a lot harder.”

Bonavita even found a way to express his individuality a little during the competition.

“The name tags are funny — big yellow pieces of paper with the logo,” he said. “You have to wear it around your neck.”

The competitors were expected, but not required, to wear the tags around their necks.

“I twirled the string around my wrist and held it that way,” he said.

After a break for lunch, the students who would be moving on returned.

“The pressure came in during the finals,” he said.

But he was still aiming high.

“I wanted to make it to the top five,” he said.

The finals started out with some relatively easy words, but the difficulty level quickly accelerated.

After ‘pretzel’ and ‘alligator’, Bonavita’s third-round word was ‘mercurial.’

The participants were given a study guide in advance of the competition. Every word, broken down by language of origin, that would be used in the bee was in the guide. But, many more words that were not used were also there.

They gave you a study list,” Bonavita said. “It was a big study list. It wasn’t like the one for the local one.”

“It definitely helped,” he said. “Without that study list, I probably wouldn’t have known what mercurial was.”

When his turn came around again, four of the final 30 students had been eliminated.

Bonavita would be the fifth.


With each word, the pronouncer gave a definition and part of speech.

“You can ask for the language,” Bonavita said. “That definitely helps. It tells you how certain sounds are spelled.”

He was told picaresque was of Spanish origin.

“I thought I had a shot,” he said. “I was off by one letter” — an ‘o’ for the ‘a’.

It took about 15 rounds to determine the eventual winner, who came out of Bonavita’s semifinal group.

His elimination means Bonavita will not be going to the Scripps National Spelling Bee on May 17 in Washington D.C. He didn’t win the top prizes. But he didn’t walk away empty-handed.

“Even if you got to the finals, you still got two tickets to the Carnegie Science Center, which is really cool,” he said.

“It was a fantastic experience and an honor for Jason to represent our community,” Jason’s mother, Colette Bonavita said.

He credits his coursework in the Warren County School District with helping him develop his spelling talents. He is also finding new and unfamiliar words on his own time while reading the Harry Potter series.

Picaresque — defined by Merriam-Webster as: “of, relating to, suggesting, or being a type of fiction dealing with the episodic adventures of a usually roguish protagonist” — was not among them.