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In round 16 of competition, reigning Fairfax County Spelling Bee champ Jae Canetti, 11, looked a bit worried when asked to spell “samara,” a dry indehiscent, usually one-seeded winged fruit. It was past 10 p.m., and Jae had been spelling for more than three hours.

“Samara?” Jae asked bee pronouncer Blake Giddens, who was charged with calling out words to test students during Tuesday night’s bee at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax. “Samara,” Giddens confirmed.

Then Jae began his every-word ritual, which helped lead him to victory during the last year’s Fairfax County Spelling Bee.

“I always have the exact same routine,” he said. “I always ask for all the information I can get. A lot of times I do it to calm myself.”

Can I have the definition?

Can you use it in a sentence?

What is the part of speech?

Etemology (or from where does the word originate)?

Are there any alternate pronunciations?

A request for Giddens to repeat the word.

And a quick scrawling with his right hand of the word on his left arm.

“The scribbling thing... Lots of kids will write the words on their hands before they spell it [aloud],” Jae said. “I’ve seen some kids typing. The worst way to go out of a spelling bee is on a word you know.”

Completing his routine, Jae took a big breath and said, “Samara. S-A-M-pause-A-R-A.”

A quick nod from the panel of three judges — School Board members Ryan McElveen (At-large) and Elizabeth Schultz (Springfield District) and Fairfax County Times’ Editor Steve Cahill — and Jae knew he’d moved on to the next round.

“Samara. YES!” he shouted while pumping a fist.

Fifth-grader Jae and eighth-grader Shruti Anant, who represented the Nysmith School for the Gifted, were locked in a one-on-one showdown from round 14 to 18 before Shruti, the county’s 2011 spelling champion, tripped on “acervation” in round 18.

The neck-and-neck spell-down between Jae and Shruti is almost an annual event.

“In third grade, when I got second place, I actually lost to Shruti. She’s a really good speller,” Jae said. “In third and fourth grade and this year we were neck-and-neck. ... It’s very stressful.”

Jae won in fourth grade and again this year.

With a word wrong in her round, Shruti was ejected when Jae confidently spelled his final, winning word,“S-Y-L-P-H,” a slender woman or girl of light and graceful carriage.

Now the winner of the countywide contest, Jae will compete in the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee from May 28 to 30 at National Harbor’s Gaylord Hotel. Jae placed 22nd in the national bee last year.

“I’m going to be studying my lists and learning as many words as I can to make it further than I did last year,” Jae said. “I want to make it into round six.”

This year’s raised level of competition at the Fairfax County Spelling Bee might help prepare Jae for the national bee.

“It was clearly the most competitive county bee we’ve seen, and he was battling up there [on Lanier’s auditorium stage],” said Jae’s father, Craig Canetti. “I think what’s happening with each year ... there’s more attention given to the bee [both in the county, press and on national television where the Scripps’ bee is broadcasted]. And I think it draws in more kids, and they work harder because they want to do well.

You’ve been seeing a lot of the same kids come back, and they know how good the others are.”

One such speller is William Furlong, an eighth-grader at Longfellow Middle School, who has performed well the past few years in county bees. William made it to round 11 during this year’s local bee, placing third.

Because of bee age eligibility requirements, Jae will not compete against either William or Shruti next year. Scripps rules say spellers must not have passed beyond the eighth grade on or before Feb. 1 of the contest year. Both teens will be heading to high school next year.

“What makes a good speller is a combination of things,” Jae said. “Hard work is one ... But lots of kids work really hard. Balance is also a really important thing.

One of the most crucial things about the spelling bee, besides the spelling, is being cool [headed] on stage.”

The Fairfax County Spelling Bee is sponsored by the Fairfax County Times in partnership with the Fairfax County Council of PTAs.

hhobbs@fairfaxtimes.com