CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A family legacy continued as Kelly Mills became the 2017 Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee champion.
The homeschooled seventh-grader from Shady Spring sailed through 14 rounds, successfully spelling "crustacean" as the winning word earlier this month.
"It is in the bloodline, folks!" said master of ceremonies Amanda Barren.
Kelly's older sisters, Erin and Katie, who were the 2010 and 2016 regional spelling bee champions, respectively, sat in the auditorium watching intently as Kelly spelled forsythia, indigenous and rheumatism with ease.
The lights shone on Kelly's bright blond hair as she stood at the microphone, confidently enunciating each letter of her 14 spelling bee words.
"I'm so excited," she said, beaming as she held the massive golden trophy nearly half her height. Pale purple glasses framed her blue eyes, and braces dotted her wide smile.
"I was a little nervous on some of the words," she admitted, although it wasn't apparent to the audience. "I was just worried I'd say the wrong letter, or get a word I didn't know."
She said her worries eased each time she heard her word said aloud. Waiting for the pronouncer to say it was the worst part.
Leading up to the bee, Kelly said she studied 20 to 30 minutes each night, sometimes longer as the bee grew closer.
"I've been practicing all year. Looking up spelling rules and the language or origin helped a lot as well."
She plans to continue studying diligently until May 28, when she will go on an all-expense-paid, weeklong trip to Washington, D.C., for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. As the regional champion, Kelly also received a SMART529 college savings plan contribution of $2,500.
Kelly's parents, Debbie and Joe Mills, were all smiles as their youngest daughter was named champion.
"I'm just dumbfounded," Debbie said. "We're very blessed."
Her daughters have spent hours preparing throughout the years for the competition. This month's competition marked the family's eighth trip to the Regional Bee.
"They're hard workers, really hard workers," Debbie said, beaming.
She said she didn't know exactly how spelling became their thing, but their family has always enjoyed playing word games together.
When they're not winning spelling bees, the Mills sisters enjoy piano, dance, skiing and reading. Debbie said they are all very supportive of one another.
Erin, who's in her junior year at Campbell University, is studying trust and wealth management. Katie, who is now in ninth grade, and Kelly are both interested in pursuing government or political careers.
"They follow everything," Debbie shared. "They know all the women represented in our national government. They recognize them, and they talk politics with each other."
Both Katie and Erin couldn't stop smiling as they stood by their sister on the auditorium stage, posing for photo after photo.
"We're so, so proud," Katie said.
Erin added, "I wouldn't have missed it for the world."
Raleigh County was well-represented, not only by Kelly, but also by Delaney Mitchell, a Beckley-Stratton Middle School student.
The seventh-grader ended the competition in third place, which came as quite a surprise to her.
Delaney, the alternate at the county spelling bee, only found out last week she'd be competing instead of the second-place winner, Cierra James.
She prepared as much as possible, taking extra time Friday night to review some challenging words.
"I'm definitely surprised I went as far as I did."
She made her way through Round 10, successfully spelling blitzkrieg, receivable and cuisine. The word "crucible" was the only one to stump her.
"I'm ready to pop!" squeaked her mom, Christy Mitchell. "We're very proud."
Delaney's dad, James, added with a smile, "She's a really good kid."
When Delaney's not spelling, she enjoys running cross country and reading.
Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com