SUWANEE - For a minute, Sujith Cherukumilli was golden. North Hall Middle School seventh-grader Erin Brown had spelled "sorceress" incorrectly, and Sujith was going to the state spelling bee.
But then, there was a protest. And Erin was back on stage, having correctly spelled "sorcerous" - not the word the judges were expecting, but Erin hadn't asked for a definition. So she returned to the bee.
"When the girl who spelled 'sorcerous' came back up, I was a little scared," 10-year-old Sujith said. "I thought I might get it wrong and not get in the top two."
But Sujith pulled through when Erin misspelled "harpsichord" two rounds later. As the second-place finisher in Saturday's regional spelling bee, the Chattahoochee Elementary School fifth-grader will represent Gwinnett County at the state competition next month. First prize went to Olivia Smith, a Madison County eighth-grader.
Sujith, who finished 10th in the countywide bee in January, bested Kayla Arnold, that bee's winner, and 27 other students from 17 school systems. There were 13 competitors from Gwinnett, Barrow and Buford schools.
Sujith said he didn't prepare much for the spelling competition but went into the theater at Collins Hill High School thinking that he had to do his best. Two years ago, his brother, Sumanth, placed fourth in the region, but he was out of town and could not watch Sujith compete.
"He's going to be happy," Sujith said.
Sujith, who wore dark pants and a long-sleeved red shirt, gripped the microphone with his right hand when he went to spell his words. He let out a sigh of relief after getting "insipid" right in the fifth round, and kept his parents on edge with "mausoleum" - the word he spelled in round 13 after Erin was readmitted into the competition.
The most difficult word, he said, was "mononucleosis," but he succeeded in spelling it correctly after trying to distinguish the letters.
In the head-to-head competition, both Sujith and Olivia spelled three words incorrectly - "malocclusion," "cognizant" and "myasthenia" - before Sujith missed "potpourri." Olivia correctly spelled that and "vaudevillian" in succession to take the top prize.
But Gwinnett students put on a good show. Supporters of Kristen Bussey, who was eliminated in the 11th round, pumped their fists whenever she spelled a word correctly, from "deluge" to "paraplegic." Emma Walker, who sat in the front row at the competition, stretched, yawned and nearly fell out of her chair at one point in the bee.
Emma's elimination - on the word "masquerade" - was challenged, but judges upheld their call that she said "E-D-E" and not "A-D-E" after listening to the tape.
Sujith, who got a trophy for his rank, said he was proud to represent Gwinnett at the state level. One winner from that bee will go on to the national bee in Washington, D.C., representing Georgia.
Srinivas Cherukumilli, Sujith's father, said when they came to the school that morning, he was not expecting his son to place as high as he did, but he was confident that his son would remain calm at the next level of competition. Sujith's mother, Syamala, is a student at Georgia State University, where the competition will be held. She said Sujith will have a cheering section for that bee.
"First or second doesn't matter," Srinivas Cherukumilli said. "I'm proud of him."