The winning word rolled off Drew David's tongue with ease: "femininity." When he spelled it, he kept the same deliberate pace as he had all morning amid the hush and dim lights of the Summerville High auditorium.

Drew clinched his third consecutive first-place finish in the Dorchester School District 2 Spelling Bee Thursday morning. Never the type to leap for joy or dab on his opponents, he allowed himself the thinnest of smiles, shook a few hands, posed for a picture — and left as quietly as he entered.

"I'm certainly less nervous than I was in fifth grade," he said on the way out. Even back in fifth grade, when his official competition T-shirt hung down to his knees, Drew took fifth place in his district and made a respectable showing at the SpellBound regional competition.

Drew, an eighth-grader at DuBose Middle, upheld his one-man dynasty this year on a day when three different school districts held their spelling bees. Top finishers from each district will advance to the SpellBound March 7 at Charleston Southern University. The event, a qualifier for the National Spelling Bee, will be sponsored by The Post and Courier.

Like most top competitors, Drew keeps a strict routine when it comes to studying. With help from his parents, he has mastered entire practice lists and even begun to correct adults' pronunciations, squeezing study sessions in between his passion projects like tinkering with robotics or 3D-printing in the garage.

His one "trick," if you can call it that, is tracing the letters of the words on his palm as he spells. It's a visualization technique that has caught on with some of his friendly competitors.

This is the final year Drew will be eligible for competition. After taking fifth place at SpellBound in 2018, he said this could be the year he makes it to nationals. He keeps on an even keel, though.

"I must admit I'm also pretty glad to leave the spelling bee because I won't have to go through the hassle of studying anymore," he said.

winner dabbing.jpg

Seventh grader Ranitha Kumarasinghe from Orange Grove Charter School, celebrates his win at the Charleston County School District Spelling Bee, held at Burke High School Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Drew wasn't the only familiar name in the winners' circle Thursday. At the Charleston County School District bee later in the day, Ranitha Kumarasinghe took first place after a grueling 30-round showdown.

Ranitha took second place in the district bee last year, but he went on to win it all at SpellBound and compete in the national bee. 

Throughout the competition Thursday evening in the Burke High auditorium, Ranitha frequently asked for the language of origin on the words he was given. Some spellers, particularly in the upper-level contests, have learned the basic phonetic patterns of various languages and can use the language of origin as a helpful clue.

Ranitha, runner-up John Ottaviano of Camp Road Middle and third-place finisher Randolph Villariza of School of the Arts slugged it out for 16 of the 30 rounds, successfully spelling tricky words like diffa (from Arabic), anschluss (from German) and kovsh (a type of ladle, derived from Lithuanian).

In the end, Ranitha clinched the victory with the relatively simple word "debacle." As he did on national television during the 2018 National Spelling Bee, Ranitha celebrated with what has now become his signature move: A bow combined with a dab. (For the uninitiated, that means tucking your face into the crook of one elbow and shooting your other arm out in a salute to the sky.)

In Dorchester School District 4, fifth-grader John Quattlebaum of William Memorial Elementary took home first place with the winning word "offal" — not to be confused with its homonym "awful." Jaiden Mondo of Harleyville-Ridgeville Middle took second place, and James Moseley of St. George Middle took third.

Dorchester 4 spelling bee winner, 2019

John Quattlebaum, a fifth grader at Williams Memorial Elementary, won the Dorchester School District 4 Spelling Bee on Thurs. Jan. 17, 2019. His winning word was "offal." Dorchester School District 4/Provided

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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