By Sarah Jaeger
Special for Second Half
WATERFORD – Friday’s Division 2 Bowling Finals at Century Lanes ended in a repeat for 2014, as both the Flint Kearsley girls and boys teams successfully repeated as MHSAA champions.
The Kearsley girls had to defeat a familiar foe, 2014 Finals runners-up Bay City Western.
"I thought this was déjà vu all over again," said Bay City Western senior Anna Kuehne, "but I kind of hoped the ending was different."
After losing three bowlers to graduation last year, Western welcome three new members to the roster including a senior bowling with the team for the first time and a junior who had never picked up a ball until six months ago.
The Warriors came out strong with their Baker games, and Kearsley soon found itself down 69 pins after the set.
"I knew they were good," said Kearsley coach Robert Ploof. "I knew they could put up some scores in their Baker games."
But the Hornets made each frame count and never gave up. "You just got to chip away," Ploof added. "They didn't worry about throwing strikes, just filling frames, and that's what we did and it paid off."
Kearsley was able to overcome the deficit and win 1242-1212.
"You got to give Bay City Western credit though, they gave us everything we could handle,” Ploof said. “They had us, they really did. They had us."
Junior Hannah Ploof led Kearsley during the final game with a score of 238 despite battling an injury to her foot. "She's kind of a mess right now. So for what she did out there, that's pretty amazing," said Robert Ploof, also her father.
"I iced it all day, and I tried not to think about it," Hannah said. "The last match it was more like my adrenaline kicked in, so I didn't feel it."
On the boys side, Western also was Kearsley’s championship match opponent – and the last obstacle keeping Kearsley from becoming the first Division 2 boys team to win back-to-back titles.
With close Baker matches of 160-152 and 173-168, the Western boys took the lead going into the regular game.
But experience in the Finals came in handy for the Hornets.
"We only lost one senior from last year," said Flint Kearsley coach Bart Rutledge, "so we had the same team coming back."
Not only was it primarily the same team from 2013-14, but most of the bowlers had been competing together for the last six years.
"Our school started middle school bowling," said Kearsley senior Anthony Kelly, "so we've been bowling together ever since seventh grade."
And for his last game with his teammates, Kelly rolled a 226, allowing Kearsley to edge Western, 1351-1344.
"To be completely honest, at the start of the year I didn't think we had it in us. And now that it's over I wouldn't change anything," Kelly said.
While Kearsley’s boys will have one lone bowler returning next season from their back-to-back championship teams, Bay City Western does not have a graduating senior.
They already have set their sights on the prize.
"It's not the result I wanted, but it's a lot farther than I thought we were going to make it," said Dylan Brown, a junior for Bay City Western.
"Next year I think it's ours," he added. "We're a young team, we really are. Next year we'll be a lot more mature."
Rogers City’s bowling team is on a roll. And the Hurons haven’t even had their first competition of the season.
Rogers City has a decorated past, including winning the first state bowling championship in 1999, organized by the Bowling Center Association of Michigan, against a field including schools of all sizes and five years before the addition of MHSAA Finals in the sport. The boys team also was the Division 4 team runner-up at the first Class C-D Finals hosted by the MHSAA in 2004.
The Hurons hope to return to those glory days by bringing back experienced bowlers on both the boys and girls teams. Rogers City last qualified teams for the Finals in 2020 – when both the boys and girls advanced – and both teams hope to make a run at the Northern Michigan Conference title and land a spot at this season’s Finals in March.
The boys did find success last year — with just four bowlers — placing ahead of a handful of teams at its Regional. This year, Rogers City has a full boys team, and more, including junior Gavin Rhode, who qualified for the Singles Finals last year. The Hurons also are returning senior Conner Muller and sophomore Gabe Mina; Muller narrowly missed qualifying for the Finals last winter. And they are excited to see how first-year bowlers Blaise Szatkowski, Cooper Heinzel, George Karsten, Jacob Wickersham and Ryan Morgan perform.
The girls are returning seniors Arianna Anderson and Sophia Mina and sophomore Olivia Reyes. First-year bowlers Ruby Svay – an exchange student – and freshman Brooke Crawford compose the rest of the squad.
Both the boys and the girls have added strong bowlers with incoming freshmen, including Wickersham, a 180-average bowler.
“With a small school you kind of know what is coming along,” long-time coach Brian Bannasch said. “Even with our limited numbers last year, we were still competitive.”
The Hurons will open their season Jan. 6. As has been the case for years, matches will take place on Saturdays for optimal lane availability.
“After the success previous to COVID, the last couple years have really been a letdown just not having enough bodies,” Bannasch acknowledged. “We still sent kids to the state finals individually, but team-wise were just lacking numbers with a small school that has under 175 in the high school.
“When you lose any number of kids, it is tough to replace them,” he continued. “We are really excited to have numbers this year.”
The bowling program has been battling lower overall school enrollment and competing with basketball and wrestling teams for roster numbers.
Long hours in the alley for practice, traveling for matches and competing are paying off for the Hurons. Those long hours are the same for the coaches, forcing absence from the family business.
But it’s being done with a focus on a road trip to the Division 4 Finals in March, at Northway Lanes in Muskegon.
The boys and girls Regionals, hosted by Traverse City Christian, will be held at Lucky Jacks in Traverse City.
“We definitely have individuals expecting to qualify as individuals on the boys side,” Bannasch said. “We have three girls that have bowled before and fewer teams in each Regional.
“We had a pretty powerful Regional,” he continued. “Maybe with fewer teams, it could work to our advantage.”
Bannasch, whose family owns the local bowling alley Nautical Lanes, has been the boys and girls bowling coach from the beginning at Rogers City. The school started with a club team prior to making it a varsity sport.
Bannasch has seen a lot of talented bowlers develop through his youth programs and then vie for championships in high school. The Hurons often have had more than a dozen bowlers on the boys team.
Bannasch points to every bowler in Rogers City history competing in at least one varsity match every year as key to the team’s historical success. His unique philosophy of participation often has paid dividends.
“One of the things that has helped us be successful is that I have a little different philosophy than most coaches,” Bannasch noted. “We’ve had years where we’ve had 12 or 14 boys and 10 girls.
“We had JV matches, but we never consider it JV – they were all part of the varsity bowling team,” he continued. “In the next year, they have experienced that and know what the varsity match is all about.”
Bannasch also has watched other conference schools win or contend for Finals titles, something he points to with pride.
Bannasch spotlighted Cheboygan’s boys having won the Division 2 title in 2009 and Boyne City’s boys — as a newer program — finishing Division 3 runners-up in 2020 and 2021. Cheboygan’s girls finished Division 3 runners-up in 2022.
“Our success has been great, but I take just as much pride in the success of our conference,” Bannasch said. “We’re such a close-knit conference, it is great to see anybody up here be successful at it.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Rogers City’s bowling teams have high aspirations this winter with their first competitions coming up next month. (Middle) Gavin Rhode, a Finals qualifier last season, practices recently. (Below) Arianna Anderson, left, and Sophia Mina are seniors on the girls team. (Photos by Richard Lamb/Presque Isle Newspapers.)