Saugerties Spelling Bee: ‘Rhododendron’ to the regionals

Saugerties District spelling bee winner Samuel Cushman and runner-up Genevieve Gentile with their principal, Sue Osterhoudt.

The Saugerties schools’ annual spelling bee was swept by a pair of sixth grade students at Riccardi Elementary School. Champion Sam Cushman and runner-up Genevieve Gentile are headed to the regional bee next month.

Cushman and Gentile battled one another for six rounds at the district bee December 19 before the former took the title in flowery fashion by spelling “rhododendron.” Cushman, competing in his third straight district bee, was runner-up as a fourth grader, and advanced to the regional bee in 2016.


“It was a little intimidating seeing 100-plus [spellers] in that bee,” conceded Cushman. “Most of them were eighth graders and I was only a fourth grader at the time. There were five of us fourth graders, including me. So it was pretty insane seeing all those kids there. And stressful, too.”

The 14-round district bee featured a pair of students — champion and runner-up — from the four elementary schools, plus two from the junior high. Cahill sent fourth grader Milo Angevine and fifth grader Anghus Park; Grant D. Morse fifth grader Harper Ferraro and fourth grader Kelsie Davidson; and Mt. Marion sent fifth-graders Lucian Friedman-Picayo and Kaydin Rodriguez. The junior high sent school eighth grader Espia Dunkley and seventh grader Gracelyn VonAhnen.

The contest narrowed down to the two kids from Riccardi. While Cushman was familiar with the rigors of spelling bees, November’s school bee at Riccardi was the first-ever for Gentile.

“I was very nervous,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to go as far as I did, so it was nice.” She credited her success to near-constant study of the list of words given to students ahead of the bee, much of it performed with her 16-year-old sister Vanessa.

“I knew that I had some potential, so that helped a little bit knowing that I did have a chance,” said Gentile about the district bee. “And I still was nervous, because [some of the competitors] are a lot older than me and they’ve done more.”

Cushman also studied the packets of words likely to be asked during the bee.

He said it was important not to let nerves get in the way of strategy. “Certain words in certain languages are spelled different ways or pronounced different ways,” he said. “Some might sound the same but have different definitions, too, so it’s good to ask. And if it doesn’t sound familiar, I’ll ask questions.”

Because of his previous bee experience, Cushman felt confident right on through “rhododendron.” “I’m not as nervous in the spelling bee now, and I wasn’t expecting to pass the first one,” he said.

Riccardi will be the lone school representing the district in the Capital Regional Spelling Bee at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady on Tuesday, February 13. “It was pretty awesome, honestly.”

Cushman and Gentile have been given even more to study, because the regional spelling bee isn’t just about spelling. “There are a lot of words to study in that packet, over 1000,” Cushman said. “And they also ask you definitions in the bee, so we’re attempting to learn them. That’s obviously harder than just spelling the word, in my opinion.”

Though he excels in English, Cushman is also great at math. “He was doing pre-calculus in fourth grade,” said his father, Paul Cushman.

“I like math,” said Cushman. “I’m kind of good at that, not to brag.”

Cushman is in the Boy Scouts, plays sports — soccer in the fall and basketball in the winter. He tried out for the musical All-County for a second straight year as a trumpeter.

Gentile likes social studies, but is also a fan of English, which she said helped her decide to take on the spelling bee. “I’ve always liked English and all that stuff, and I realized I was getting better at it so I wanted to give [the spelling bee] a try.”

Active in dance and volleyball, Gentile is already thinking about her post-college career. “I have at least three that I’m thinking through,” she said. “An English teacher, a physical trainer or a therapist.”

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