Brian Liu, 11, a sixth-grader at Great Neck North Middle School, won the ScholarSkills Long Island Spelling Bee in Dix Hills. He beat 47 other spellers, winning with a word that people see on menus all the time: "Bolognese." Credit: Gary Licker, photo credit: Steve Pfost / Newsday

Brian Liu's mother told him to eat a big dinner Friday, to give him energy. The 11-year-old had spent hours, night after night, studying thousands of words that might come up in Long Island's big spelling bee. She said she wanted him to be strong.

His mother, Shuting Peng, was right. The ScholarSkills Long Island Spelling Bee went on for more than four hours Friday night, but Brian bested 47 other spellers to win.

The sixth-grader at Great Neck North Middle School did so by correctly spelling a word that people see on menus all the time — "Bolognese" — the thick, meaty sauce that tastes so good on pasta.

"I kind of related it to bologna, so I knew it had a 'g' in it," said Brian, of Great Neck, who will now represent Long Island in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., May 30 to June 1.

Brian said he was as surprised as anyone that he came out on top. He had only realized his knack for spelling after winning his school bee in January. At home, his family speaks Chinese most of the time, he said.

A few hundred people showed up to watch the Long Island bee at Half Hollow Hills High School East in Dix Hills. Brian's mother gave him some advice: "Enjoy and have fun," she said.

Brian said he was nervous, having to think clearly in front of all those people, knowing that one slip of the tongue could eliminate him. The contestants from Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester had already won their school spelling contests and passed a digital vocabulary exam that tested their knowledge of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes and suffixes.

Easy stuff, right?

Next stop, Washington, D.C. Brian Liu and his mom, Shuting Peng,...

Next stop, Washington, D.C. Brian Liu and his mom, Shuting Peng, after the Long Island bee. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Brian, an A student who enjoys playing violin and reading Harry Potter books, said he had spent the past two weeks studying two to three hours a night in his room, going over a book provided to contestants with 4,000 words that might come up.

Words in the early rounds were pretty easy, he said. Correctly spelling words like "stubble" and "buoyancy" built his confidence.

Then came the hard words, like "tokonoma," which is a decorative space in a Japanese-style room for displaying flowers and ornaments. Brian wasn't sure on that one. The middle of the word sounded like it should be spelled "kin," he said.

Contestants weren't permitted to use pen and paper, so Brian used his finger to spell it out, first with an "i" in the middle and then with an "o."

"The one with the 'o' looked better," he said.


Meanwhile, his mother sat in the audience feeling, she said, "nervous and happy. I knew that no matter what, win or lose, it was going to be a good memory." 

The three final spellers battled to the last minute and beyond, said Brian Viera, executive director of ScholarSkills for STARS. The contest was supposed to end by 10 p.m., but the three kept spelling words correctly, stretching the bee an extra 15 minutes.

"It was a battle royale," Viera said. "People were on the edge of their seats." 

When Brian emerged victorious, his mother gave him a big hug.

"Proud," she said, describing her feelings. "And surprised. I didn't know he was such a good speller."

The second-place finisher was Aadita Prajapati, a seventh-grader at Willets Road School in Roslyn Heights, with third place going to Zara Anand, a fifth-grader at Jeffrey Ratner-Robert Seaman Elementary School in Jericho. 

Further on, Brian said, he'd like to become a mathematician. But first he has the national spelling bee in a couple months.

His strategy for winning there?

"I think maybe I'll study the harder words more," he said.

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