Speller number 228, Darren Baker of Midvale, only had one thing to say when asked how he felt about competing in the 71st Annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee representing the Deseret News and the state of Utah, "I'm excited."

Actually, Baker had much more to say, like the fact that he's been reviewing not only 1,000 study words, but he's also trying to keep on top of his homework."I've been studying, but not as much as I did for state because I'm trying to make up for the two weeks of homework I'm missing while in Washington, D.C," said Baker, an eighth-grader and class president at Midvale Middle School.

He's among 249 contestants about to enjoy a week of spelling, friendship-making and cultural experiences in the nation's capital. Because he won the Deseret News Spelling Bee on March 27, he qualified to represent Utah at the national finals. His prize for being Utah's champion speller of 1998, provided by the Deseret News, is an all-expense-paid trip for himself and one parent to the national finals.

The Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee is the nation's largest and longest-running educational promotion, administered on a not-for-profit basis by the E.W. Scripps Co. and 239 sponsors, including the Deseret News, in the United States, Guam, Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Europe and American Samoa. Sponsorship is not limited to Scripps Howard newspapers and the Deseret News has held the spelling bee franchise for the state of Utah for 23 years.

The purpose of the yearlong competition, which begins at the classroom, grade, school, school district and state levels, is to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabulary, learn concepts and develop correct English usage as a life skill.

Baker is well-equipped to show well in the competition that for him begins Wednesday afternoon. He's a straight-A student, an Eagle Scout and eventually would like to pursue a medical career.

Spelling bee contestants must be under the age of 16 and not have passed beyond the eighth grade.

Before Baker takes to the podium, he's going to have some fun along with other contestants and their families. Sunday night began with an ice cream social and Monday and Tuesday are filled with tours of historical and cultural sites in and around Washington, D.C.

Accompanying Baker are his mother and father, Linda and Roger Baker, as well as his brother and three sisters. "We've made this a real family affair because it's probably one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences," said Linda Baker.

The National Spelling Bee is taking place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. It officially begins 8 a.m. Wednesday and continues through 7 p.m. The final rounds will occur on Thursday.

Friday, there's more touring and the awards banquet and farewell party that night. The overall champion will receive $10,000 and other prizes from Scripps Howard.

The 1998-99 Deseret News Spelling Bee competition will begin again this fall with word lists going out to participating school district coordinators in early September. Anyone wanting more information should contact their school principal or call the Deseret News at 237-2136.

Baker's progress will be reported throughout the week in the Deseret News. Also, the national spelling bee's Web site at (www.spellingbee.com) contains more information.