Alachua County student heads to National Spelling Bee after winning regional competition

The First Coast Spelling Bee’s pronouncer, Patrick Gallagher, hugs Westin Martin after Martin correctly spelled the winning word. Gallagher shares Martin’s Alachua County roots, as he currently teaches AP English in Gainesville at Buchholz High School. (Zackary Weiss/WUFT News)


An Alachua County student is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Westin Martin, an eighth grader from Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, will be a contestant at the National Spelling Bee in Maryland beginning May 30. Martin outlasted 13 students in the First Coast Spelling Bee in Jacksonville this month to win his qualifying spot.

The counties represented at Jacksonville’s LaVilla School of the Arts, where the spelling bee was held, were Flagler, Hamilton Alachua, Baker, Madison, Suwannee, Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Nassau, Putnam, Bradford, Columbia and Union.

After 15 rounds and over 125 words, Martin punched his ticket to the Old Line State. He’ll now be North Florida’s lone representative going forward.

The First Coast Spelling Bee rules were as follows: After hearing their word, students were allowed to ask for the definition, the word used in a sentence, the part of speech and the word’s origins as many times as they wanted. They were allowed to start over whenever they wanted, but could not change any letters they had already used.

After the rules were read aloud, the practice round began. The 14 words in the practice round — all of which were correctly spelled — were “thorn, bubbly, storm, turtle, tasteless, tickled, blurb, uncle, clover, rumor, towel, raven, toughness and nervy.” The difficulty level of these words was somewhat representative of the difficulty of the words the in early rounds. As the competition went on, the words became more complex.

The first official round saw “dawdle, tango, splurge, stencil, bias, daft, spry, banana, junior, sundae (no, not Sunday), genius, legacy, ignite and remedial” — all were spelled correctly. Everyone moved on to round two.

Rounds two, three, four and five each saw one student eliminated. The culprits included words like “definitely, waiver and Orion.”

The top 10 students lasted through round six — correctly spelling the words “coercive, demonstrative, peninsular, bailiff, enviable, petrifying, trifle, constituent and divvy” — and reached deep into seven, until “machination” was misspelled late in the round. The ensuing three rounds each saw another student eliminated.

A side view of Alachua County’s Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Gainesville, Florida, where Westin Martin is currently an eighth grader. (Zackary Weiss/WUFT News)

By round 12, the competition had dwindled down to a top five: Kaylen Murphy, a seventh grader from Hamilton County High School, Bradley Harrison, a seventh grader from Suwannee Middle School, Leighmar Wilson, a seventh grader from Manor Oaks Academy in Duval County, Tucker Ayers, a fifth grader from Fort White Elementary School in Columbia County and — of course — Westin Martin.

Harrison was knocked out in the 12th round by the word “utilitarian,” and Wilson fell in round 13 to “reminiscent.” This left a top three of Murphy, Ayers and Martin.

And in what would end up being the final round, No. 14, both Murphey and Ayers misspelled their initial words — which left the contest solely in Westin Martin’s hands.

The trophy. The title. The one-year subscription to Britannica and Merriam-Webster. The Samuel Louis Sugarman Award. And, above all, a trip to the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor for the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee. All of it was in the eighth grader from Alachua County’s hands.

The word he was left with, for all the marbles, was “desertification.” And just nine seconds after hearing it, he was crowned the champ.

Westin Martin and his family pose with his trophy following the First Coast Spelling Bee. Martin now moves on to the 2023 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will take place at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. (Zackary Weiss/WUFT News)

“Just learning sounds,” Martin said, explaining his key to winning and being a good speller. “Some of these sounds are weird, and there are extra letters. It’s memorization mostly.”

Patrick Gallagher, the First Coast Spelling Bee’s pronouncer, embraced Martin on stage after all was said and done. Gallagher said he shares Martin’s Alachua County roots, as he’s currently an AP English Language and Composition teacher at Buchholz High School in Gainesville.

“It’s special,” he said. “It’s really special. That’s the first time I’ve been at the Regional Bee that the speller from Alachua (County) won.”

This was Gallagher’s second year as a pronouncer for the First Coast Spelling Bee. He was a judge three years ago for the Regional Bee, and he’s been the pronouncer for the Alachua County Bee for seven years. This was actually the first in-person Regional Bee post-COVID-19. It was held virtually the previous two years.

“I think that, you know, so much of what we do… we have so many safety nets and things like that,” Gallagher said. “And there are so many ways in which we want to protect ourselves from doing poorly, especially in front of other people. For these kids to be able to get up there on stage and put themselves out there… it’s so amazing to be able to be a part of it.”

WJXT-Channel 4 will air the 2023 First Coast Spelling Bee on Saturday, May 27 at 4 p.m. It will also be available on the News4JAX+ app.

About Zack Weiss

Zack is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing

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