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2 mature spellers stand out among 15 left at national bee

Associated Press logo Associated Press 6/1/2017 By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press
Shourav Dasari, 14, from Spring, Texas, pauses before spelling his word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Shourav Dasari, 14, from Spring, Texas, pauses before spelling his word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

OXON HILL, Md. (AP) — As the Scripps National Spelling Bee inched its way through the four grueling rounds that would determine the primetime finalists, two spellers seemed like young men among boys and girls.

Erin Howard, 12, from Huntsville, Ala., front row left, and Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, N.C., front row right, and others, react when it is announced they will be in evening finals session of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Erin Howard, 12, from Huntsville, Ala., front row left, and Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, N.C., front row right, and others, react when it is announced they will be in evening finals session of the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sitting on opposite sides of the stage, veteran spellers Tejas Muthusamy and Shourav Dasari, both 14, handled their time at the microphone with ease and flair. Both came into the bee with high expectations and were among the 15 spellers competing Thursday night for a trophy and more than $40,000 in cash and prizes.

Alice Liu, 10, from Chesterfield, Mo., smiles before spelling her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Alice Liu, 10, from Chesterfield, Mo., smiles before spelling her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Shourav, of Spring, Texas, the tallest speller on stage at 5 foot 11, kept his hands inside the pocket of his black Nike hoodie and went through the motions of asking a few questions — definition, language of origin — about words he clearly knew. In the spelling bee equivalent of a bat flip in baseball, he turned away and began walking toward his seat before he even heard the words "you're correct" from a judge.

Saketh Sundar, 11, of Elkridge, Md., jumps up in the air after spelling his word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, June 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) © The Associated Press Saketh Sundar, 11, of Elkridge, Md., jumps up in the air after spelling his word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, June 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

"I just knew that I got it right," Shourav said in his slight Texas drawl. "No need to stand around."

Alex Iyer, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, reacts after spelling his word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Alex Iyer, 14, from San Antonio, Texas, reacts after spelling his word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Shourav was highly touted ahead of last year's bee, having swept the two minor-league bees — the North South Foundation and the South Asian Spelling Bee — that serve as a proving ground for future champions. But he was eliminated just short of the primetime finals, continuing what some spellers refer to as the "Dasari family curse." His older sister, Shobha, competed in the bees three times and also suffered some tough eliminations.

Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, N.C., ponders before spelling his word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, N.C., ponders before spelling his word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

No matter how he fares later Thursday, the curse is over, he said.

Erin Howard, 12, from Huntsville, Ala., reacts after spelling her word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Erin Howard, 12, from Huntsville, Ala., reacts after spelling her word correctly during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

"We've always gone out in the round before the night finals," Shourav said. "That's not an issue now."

Sohum Sukhatankar, 11, of Allen, Texas, right, takes a moment during a break in competition at the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, June 1, 2017. At left is Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, North Carolina. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) © The Associated Press Sohum Sukhatankar, 11, of Allen, Texas, right, takes a moment during a break in competition at the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee in Oxon Hill, Md., Thursday, June 1, 2017. At left is Rohan Sachdev, 14, from Cary, North Carolina. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Shourav has grown 4 inches in the past year. Tejas, too, has matured from a round-faced, slightly chubby kid into a lanky and elegant teenager with wispy facial hair.

Tara Singh, 12, from Louisville, Ky., uses an imaginary keyboard as she spells her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Tara Singh, 12, from Louisville, Ky., uses an imaginary keyboard as she spells her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Tejas, from Glen Allen, Virginia, finished in the top 10 in 2014 and 2015. But last year, he was eliminated before the finals. He started studying again the day he got home, aiming to be more confident on stage this year. So far, so good.

Naysa Modi, 11, from Monroe, La., spells her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) © The Associated Press Naysa Modi, 11, from Monroe, La., spells her word during the 90th Scripps National Spelling Bee, Thursday, June 1, 2017, in Oxon Hill, Md. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

His goal has been to win, but he's come to a Zen-like understanding of what he called the "vicissitudes" of spelling bees. It hasn't come easily.

"I'm a natural pessimist. Slowly I've understood that even champions who spell every word correctly don't know every word in the bee," Tejas said. "I've kind of accepted that."

Tejas said he knew every word he'd been given before he stepped up to the microphone and was given "bucatini," a pasta in the form of long, thin tubes. After making sure he got all the information about the word from pronouncer Jacques Bailly, he spelled it correctly and tipped his head back in relief.

While Shourav and Tejas survived, three previous top-10 finishers were eliminated: Siyona Mishra, Rutvik Gandharsi and Jashun Paluru. Siyona, the reigning South Asian Spelling Bee champion, went out on "corriedale," a large, hornless sheep from New Zealand.

"She got a really hard word," said Sylvie Lamontagne, who finished fourth last year and is now coaching younger spellers. "It always happens to someone."

The remaining spellers also include Naysa Modi, already making her third appearance in the bee at age 11, and Rohan Sachdev, for whom spelling is a distraction from his first love, tennis. He's the top-ranked player in his age group in his home state of North Carolina.

No matter what happens later Thursday at a convention center outside Washington, it's all but certain that either Shourav or Tejas will leave disappointed. The bee has ended in a tie for three years running, but this year it added a written tiebreaker test in an attempt to identify a single champion.

As much as they might not admit it after thousands of hours of practice, luck remains a factor.

"The dictionary is so vast," Tejas said. "A lot of spellers talk about conquering the dictionary. I don't think that's possible."

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Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at https://twitter.com/APBenNuckols

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