After Regional Run, Paw Paw Rolling Again

By Pam Shebest
Special for

February 17, 2021

PAW PAW — Ethan Van Der Slik has some definite goals in mind when it comes to bowling.

Southwest CorridorThe Paw Paw junior is aiming to break personal records set by his mentor and grandfather, Rich Van Der Slik.

“When I heard that I said, ‘Good for you. Beat this old man,” his grandpa said.

The younger bowler has plenty of time to catch up.

His grandfather started bowling at age 20, had his first of two 300s at age 51 and threw an 810 series at age 59.

So far, Ethan has one 700 series. But there are plenty of opportunities ahead – both for individual achievements and as part of a Paw Paw varsity with experience from last season and aspirations to finish this one even better.

Van Der Slik is the youngest on a senior-laden Paw Paw team that won its Regional last year and is 2-0 this young Southwest Michigan High School Bowling Conference season.

However, after dominating performances at the local level last year, the boys underwent an eye-opening experience at state competition.

Bowling was one of the few winter sports that actually competed through the Finals during the 2019-20 winter season, and the Red Wolves hope to build on that experience if they return to the MHSAA Division 3 Finals this March 26-27. At last year’s Finals, Paw Paw missed the team match play by 148 pins during qualifying despite showing potential with an 852 regular game and high Baker of 187.

“Competition is a lot harder outside our little town,” said Derek Ballard, one of five seniors on the team. “You can’t get nervous; you have to keep striking. You can’t get away from what you do just because you’re in a bigger town.

“The important thing is, if you’re nervous, you’re going to miss your mark. You’ve got to keep steady and if you keep steady, your shots are going to look good.”

Lifetime Sport

“I bowled for 44 years and quit when my shoulder said it didn’t want to do it anymore,” Rich Van Der Slik said. Now he spends his time at bowling centers working with his grandson.

Paw Paw boys bowling“He’s a good kid and very coachable,” Rich Van Der Slik said. “He listens and he tries.

“He’s thinking ahead. He knows when it’s time to make his ball changes.”

Trying to best his grandfather “pushes me to be better,” said Van Der Slik, who has a few warmup routines before his Saturday high school matches.

He and his grandfather go to breakfast, then he shoots splits and strikes at Continental Lanes when the high school match is not there.

Although baseball is his other sport, Van Der Slik also throws a football before matches, an exercise he learned from Scott Brunner, who has the pro shop at Continental.

“It helps me get my hand through the (bowling) ball better; shows me the spin,” Van Der Slik said.

Paw Paw bowling brings together the Zolp family as well.

Boys coach Chuck Zolp is in his 22nd season. His daughter, Jessica, coaches the girls and “I’ve been working (at Rainbow Lanes) since 1972 and bought the place in 1979,” Zolp said.

That is a big advantage for both teams since they do not have to worry about scheduling practice time.  While the Red Wolves boys are an experienced contender, they are relying on a new anchor, Ballard, after the team graduated Michael Hiestand last spring.

Hiestand was the team’s top singles roller at last year’s Regional, just missing the Finals with a 13th place. Van Der Slik was 24th and Ballard 25th.

“(Derek) helps with the rest of the team, coaches them in-between matches and in practice,” said Chuck Zolp, in his 22nd year coaching the team. “He’s very consistent. He brings a lot to the team.”

The other seniors on the team are Peyton Long, Zach Dooley, Christian Johnson and Vaughn Stiglich. Long, Dooley and Stiglich all bowled during last season’s Singles Regional as well.

Paw Paw boys bowlingAlthough he has not thrown a 700 series yet, Ballard’s top score is 277.

He started bowling at a young age.

“There was a youth sign up out here (at Rainbow) and I asked my dad (Doug) if I could join and I never stopped,” he said.

Making Adjustments

The biggest differences for bowlers this year are wearing masks and having no spectators. However, MHSAA guidelines allow them to drop the masks at the approach.

“It’s kind of hot after a few games, but it’s not bad,” Ballard said. “We can take it down on the approach, but I usually don’t because it’s annoying to pull it down. I have no problem with it.”

Van Der Slik, who also has no problem with the mask, is aware of his role on the team.

“Being the young guy, I’m going to be the only one here next year so I’ve got to do what I can to make the team better,” he said.

“I see myself as almost the middle man, trying to keep everyone happy and doing the best I can.”

The lack of spectators also does not bother Van Der Slik at all.

“It’s actually not as bad as you would think because I’m a very loud person,” he said. “Everyone hearing me, it’s definitely a scary thing for them but fun for us.”

Pam ShebestPam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Paw Paw’s Ethan Van Der Slik begins his approach during a recent practice. (Middle) Senior Derek Ballard lines up his next shot. (Below) Clockwise from top left: Red Wolves boys bowling coach Chuck Zolp, Ballard, Rich Van Der Slik and Ethan Van Der Slik. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)

Fast-Building Fowlerville Bowling Program Growing Into Striking Success

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

January 26, 2023

HOWELL – The Fowlerville bowling program started with a question.

Mid-MichiganBrent Wood was an eighth grader, bowling in the local rec department junior high league, when he saw the Howell High School team practicing a few lanes over one afternoon. He’d enjoyed bowling with his family growing up, but what grabbed his attention that day was the friendly atmosphere at the Highlanders’ practice – everyone seemed to be having fun.

So he asked his mom Denise, a speech therapist in the Fowlerville district, why their school didn’t have a team too.

She went to athletic director Brian Osborn for the answer, and it was a pretty simple one – the athletic department hadn’t been able to find a coach to start one up.

“I’m the kind of mom that if my kid wants it, I’ll see how I can make it happen,” Denise Wood said. “And when Brent is driven by something, I know he’ll do well at it.”

Denise Wood figured out how to bring high school bowling to Fowlerville – and then some.

Never before a coach, nor a bowler outside of family fun, she agreed to start a Gladiators high school bowling program – one that four years later has two varsities and a JV team and had to make cuts this winter for the first time.

Building any program from ground level is full of challenges. Throw in a pandemic, and it gets tougher for sure. But knocking down obstacles has been like knocking down pins – it’s a bit of a theme for the quickly-growing program, its coach and the now-senior who got things rolling.

Bowling began for Brent

Brent Wood had played baseball and flag football and wrestled growing up. He tried everything his mom would let him, and that’s impressive enough – he doesn’t have a complete right hip, just bone on bone where the femur and pelvis meet.

Brent Wood shows his left-handed, left-footed bowling style. Considering that challenge, opportunities in those other sports faded as he grew older. And he wasn’t a big fan of school either. But Denise Wood knew a bowling team would motivate Brent to stay active and do well academically.

Does it hurt where that hip padding should be? Brent said no – it just feels like what he knows to be normal. But Mom said she can tell when it does, and he’s had 13 surgeries over the years. Brent still managed to play those sports and learn how to ride a bike with just his left leg – “and I still manage to bowl somewhat decent some days,” he said.

He’s actually become an all-league bowler – most recently finishing ninth at the White Lake Lakeland Invitational last weekend – while employing an uncommon style.

Generally, a left-handed bowler will land on the right foot when releasing the ball. Wood instead lands on his left, or opposite foot, to stay off the right one.

Denise Wood describes it as being a “very non-traditional single-handed lefty who has figured out how to make it work.” Brent said when he first started this bowling style, it was a little complicated – but last summer he took lessons and upped his knowledge by competing in a number of tournaments and against a variety of oil patterns. Additionally, “Over the summer I’ve seen one or two people land on the wrong foot like I do,” Wood said, “so I know I’m not the only one who does it.”

He'll be the second Fowlerville bowler to continue at the college level. He’ll join friend Trevor Cockerill, who graduated last year, at nearby Cleary University where he’ll compete for coach Hayley Dann – who impressed the family by telling them that instead of trying to change Brent’s style, she’ll “work with him with what he’s got,” Denise Wood recalled.

“That’s the coach I need, because that’s what Brent does – he works with what he’s got,” Denise said. “Brent is naturally athletically talented, and when it comes to stuff that’s athletic he’s quite the problem solver. He figures out how to do things.”

Starting from scratch

Mom figured things out, too.

Denise Wood calls herself a “google coach” – as in, she googles to learn drills and pick up tips on how to better guide the Gladiators. But considering the system she and her assistants have built over a short time, she’s not giving herself enough credit.

When Wood first asked Osborn why there wasn’t a program, she followed up by asking if a potential coach needed to be a good bowler. Osborn said not necessarily – if she was willing to learn the bowling side, he would help with how school-based sports work and take care of as much paperwork as possible.

Fowlerville’s girls and boys teams this season, including head coach Denise Wood, top row far left, and assistants Kevin Mahon and Kelli Wilbur. Challenge accepted.

First, the team needed somewhere to bowl. Fowlerville has made its home at Howell’s Bowl-E-Drome, about a 20-minute drive for practices twice a week.

The bowlers arrived. Fowlerville’s first season in 2019-20 saw 10 boys and two girls come out, making up a co-ed varsity and boys junior varsity team.

Next came “learning the bowling side” – and definitely, the internet helped. Mining various bowling websites and coaching resources, she’s put together a series of drills – all of her bowlers have copies of each in a folder they keep on hand – and with assistants Kelli Wilbur and Kevin Mahon designed practices to begin at the start of the season with skills assessments and then be organized by ability level to provide for more focused attention and instruction. The bowlers also make use of the school’s weight room one day a way – adjusting all of this around schedules for students who also dance, play in the band and train for other sports.

Wilbur and Mahon are experienced bowlers, and their additions have allowed Wood the last few years to focus more on team-building activities and administrative responsibilities like signing up for tournaments and data collection. For competitions, the three coaches take turns coaching each team so that all three become familiar with all of the Gladiators’ styles.

The majority of the bowlers are newcomers to the sport. Junior Emma Wilbur – Kelli’s daughter and the top roller on the girls team – counted herself and two more teammates who had grown up bowling.

“A lot of kids that come in, come in with no bowling experience whatsoever. They just heard it was fun, they wanted to be part of a team,” Wood said. “So this year we actually did an interview for the kids – they had to fill out a personal interview for why they came out for bowling. A lot of it was to have fun, become part of a team, and some kids said to become a better bowler.”

Turning to Paige

After a promising start, the program simply had to survive its second year.

With COVID-19 making everything more complicated, Fowlerville found itself with only five bowlers for the 2020-21 season – and couldn’t even bowl as a team at its Regional with Emma Wilbur in quarantine. Families weren’t allowed to watch competitions, and just getting the word out was a challenge.

Fowlerville’s Paige Frazier, top, and Emma Wilbur. But Paige Frazier saved the day, figuratively speaking – and more realistically, potentially the program.

She solved some of the information block by starting Facebook and Instagram feeds for the bowling program that included video streams of competitions and updated information on cancelations and quarantines. “It definitely brought in a lot of attention,” Frazier remembered.

“If we hadn’t had Paige our COVID year, we wouldn’t have had a season at all,” Wood said. “Paige, I call her my female rock, because she kept the team alive.”

The work done during the COVID season paid off as the team got back in gear for last winter. The bowlers added to their social media marketing by hanging up fliers and getting word out on the program in the school’s morning announcements, and for 2021-22 enough bowlers came out to have separate girls and boys varsities for the first time.

“I had a lot of people ask me about it. A lot of people didn’t even know about it for a good two years,” Emma Wilbur said. “I had a couple friends who said they would try it out.”

Off and rolling again

The interview results from tryouts this season check out. While the team is serious about competing and succeeding, having fun and being part of a team are top priorities for most. The car rides to practices and bus rides to competitions are the best parts.

There’s still some convincing to do among classmates who might not consider bowling a sport. “They laugh about it until they find out we have a 1:30 dismissal for all the meets,” Wilbur said. But she and Frazier both play other sports too – Wilbur soccer and Frazier tennis – and realize the value in what they’ve helped create.

“I think being able to do something that you love to do, with all of your friends, a sport that you can go and do on the weekends and go and do after school … anytime that you want to you can go and do that,” Wilbur noted.

“Bowling's a really social sport,” Frazier added, “so you just learn to get along really well with your teammates, and just kinda relax and enjoy it.”

The Gladiators bowl in league matches once a week and have tournaments most January and February weekends through the regular season. Osborn said he’s excited to see so much interest at each grade level and is hopeful the program will continue to grow.

Brent Wood asked a winning question. The answer has been even better.

“It’s nice to see that we got everyone together that loves to do what we love to do,” Brent Wood said.

“Just seeing everyone enjoy the moment.”

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He is a senior editor of's editorial content and has served as MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Fowlerville bowler Ethan Hall begins his approach. (2) Brent Wood shows his left-handed, left-footed bowling style. (3) Fowlerville’s Paige Frazier, top, and Emma Wilbur. (4) Fowlerville’s girls and boys teams this season, including head coach Denise Wood, top row far left, and assistants Kevin Mahon and Kelli Wilbur. (Photos courtesy of the Fowlerville bowling program.)