Seventh-grader Mihir Konkapaka won his second title in a row Thursday at the 53rd annual San Diego Union-Tribune Countywide Spelling Bee.

The Mesa Verde Middle School student in the Poway Unified School District will represent San Diego County at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where last May he went out in the third round.

“I’m excited because the off-list words were really tense, and there was no way I could prepare for that,” Konkapaka said, “so I’m really happy I could get through all of that.”

In accepting the trophy, he thanked his parents, school librarian and teacher for helping him in the run-up to the bee. The winning word was exsufflation, a word from Latin meaning “forcible breathing or blowing out (as in clearing the respiratory tract).”

The top speller said he had tackled sufflation before in other competitions, which made Thursday’s championship word easier because of the similarity.

Konkapaka battled it out through 12 rounds with his toughest competitor from 2022, Jedd Li, an eighth-grader at Francis Parker School. For the second year in a row, Li will serve as an alternate should Konkapaka be unable to compete in the national bee.

Konkapaka said the first round was “a bit nerve wracking,” but he got more confidence as the bee continued. He said he had spent 20-25 hours a week studying words.

The Countywide Spelling Bee was held in person for the first time since 2019 and featured 76 students from grades six to eight attending public and independent schools throughout San Diego County.

Konkapaka said last year’s online contest was easier, but performing in front of a large group at the Town and Country Resort San Diego will prepare him for the nationals.

He credits his memory as he prepared by studying a list from the national bee association.

His father, Kumar, said his son is a prolific reader.

“Whenever he reads the words, he pays attention to the spelling,” the father said before the competition.

Said Paul Gothold, San Diego County superintendent of schools: “The Spelling Bee is a time-honored academic competition that any student can participate in to connect with school and develop skills that will help them in the future.

Seventh grader Mihir Konkapaka won the county spelling bee for the second consecutive time. Photo by Chris Stone
Seventh-grader Mihir Konkapaka won the county spelling bee for the second consecutive time. Photo by Chris Stone

“Students learn to set goals, dedicate time to studying and gain experience in public speaking, all of which are useful in college, career and life.”

A high degree of difficulty in the first round winnowed the field to 30 by the second and just 10 by round three, with five in the next. Then it was all Konkapaka and Li.

Students representing the county have won the Scripps National Spelling Bee twice in recent years — in 2012 with Francis Parker School student Snigdha Nandipati and in 2005 when Anurag Kashyap, a student from Poway, won it all.

The spelling bee pronouncer this year was Walter Ritter, executive director of Write Out Loud, an organization that “seeks to inspire, challenge and entertain by reading literature aloud to audiences of all ages.”

Ritter, a 74-year-old actor, said his biggest challenge is ensuring that his elocution is precise for alternate pronunciations of words.

Ritter himself spent hours — at least one a day over about six weeks —- practicing his articulation.

At the end, when asked how he felt holding the trophy, Konkapaka said, “elated, e-l-a-t-e-d.”

City News Service contributed to this article.