With ‘dryad,’ 8th-grader wins Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee

Matthew Cosentine, an eighth-grader at J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, competes in the 2019 Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee, which he won with the word “dryad.”
Matthew Cosentine, an eighth-grader at J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, competes in the 2019 Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee, which he won with the word “dryad.”

His demeanor could be characterized with the word he spelled out in round 17: S-E-R-E-N-I-T-Y.

Fourteen-year-old Matthew Cosentine seemed to barely bat an eye as he made his way through 25 increasingly challenging words — “quaff,” “junta,” “effectuate,” “idiochromatic” — to claim victory in the 2019 Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee.

During each round, the eighth-grader with a floppy haircut and a camouflage-pattern sweatshirt gripped the microphone as he spat out letters with the unconcerned attitude of a spelling bee veteran.

“I dunno,” he said later, “I just see the words as if I was looking at them on paper. But they weren’t really there.”

Cosentine learned how to spell the winning word — “dryad,” or tree nymph — while reading one of the books in the “Percy Jackson” series about Greek mythology, he said.

In fact, he had spent most of Sunday night reading — not studying up on words — before he faced off against 21 other accomplished spellers from across the region on Monday. (His chosen read over the weekend was “Spy Camp,” though, not the Rick Riordan series.)

“I think I had a pretty good shot at making the top three in terms of how much experience I had with this,” Cosentine said, holding up his glass trophy.

Cosentine, who attends J.M. Alexander Middle School, had already won an elementary school spelling bee in fifth grade. And in order to become one of the finalists at the ImaginOn stage on Monday morning, he won contests for his Huntersville school and for all schools in the northeast part of the county.

Twenty-two middle schoolers from around the region compete to see who would advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. Daniel Coston

Second-place finisher Will DeSena, an eighth-grader at St. Mark Catholic School in Charlotte, gave him a run for his money until the last few rounds. So did 8-year-old Alexia Vega, a third-grader at Sandy Ridge Elementary in Union County, who edged out plenty of other contestants to clinch third place.

But as a cross-country runner, Cosentine knew that the two-and-a-half-hour bee had to be a marathon, not a sprint.

The spelling bee is divided into two portions: First, contestants are asked to spell some of the 300 words provided to them in a study guide ahead of time.

More than a dozen contestants were left for the second chunk of the bee, when they’re asked to spell random words. Taylor Batten, the Observer’s editorial page editor and the host of the bee, said it was by far the largest number of contestants left standing that late in the contest in recent memory.

Despite his nonchalant attitude, Cosentine said he didn’t know what to expect going into the bee.

“Sometimes you can think about what place you’re gonna get based on the pictures,” he said, “but you can’t actually tell, because you’re not psychic.”

An entourage of eight family members — mom, dad, sisters, both sets of grandparents and officials from CMS schools — came to cheer him on.

Cosentine’s principal, Sonya McInnes, said she was ecstatic to see one of her students take the top trophy. (He also nabbed a bag of spelling swag and a free Merriam-Webster online subscription.)

“I know he’s worked really hard to make it this far,” she said. “He’s well deserving.”

Leslie Cosentine kisses her son Matthew, 14, on the forehead after he won the 2019 Charlotte Observer Spelling Bee. She and seven other family members came to ImaginOn in uptown to cheer on the eighth-grader. Daniel Coston

What’s next for the young champion? A trip in May to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And working on his black belt in tae kwon do. Right now, the 14-year-old has a black belt with a red stripe.

“What’s that called?” asked his dad, Louis Cosentine.

Matthew spelled it out: “B-O-C-H-O, space, T-A-N.”

Teo Armus writes about race, immigration and social issues for The Charlotte Observer. He previously worked for The Washington Post, NBC News Digital, and The Texas Tribune, including a stint reporting from the U.S.-Mexico border. He is a graduate of Columbia University, a native Spanish speaker and the son of South American immigrants.
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