Franklin Steers Thru Tough Start, Rolls Into Regional Ready for Repeat Pursuit

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

February 23, 2023

The Livonia Franklin boys bowling team raised its state championship banner from last year back in January at its home alley, but that wasn’t close to being the proudest moment this year for head coach Dan Hejka.

Greater DetroitIn fact, each passing day probably becomes the proudest moment, but not necessarily for successes that Franklin has enjoyed.

Rather, Hejka becomes prouder of his team with each passing moment because of how it’s found bright spots in a season dominated by a major detour and some potholes on the road to a potential repeat title. 

The detour started right before tryouts, when Ian Wright – who won the Division 1 Finals singles championship last year as a junior the day after Franklin won the team title – called Hejka with some news. 

“He had a little bit of wrist soreness,” Hejka said. “He gave me a call a couple of days before tryouts. He said, ‘I’m injured.’ I said, ‘OK, well you’ve got a spot (on the team).’” 

Hejka said the goal was to have Wright come back after Thanksgiving, but then the soreness lingered into the holidays. 

Wright was expected to come back with fellow senior Sam White to form one of the state’s top tandems. 

“He bowled once or twice with us in practice after the holidays,” Hejka said. “With the pain he was experiencing, he was unable to bowl.”

Hejka suspects it was an overuse injury from bowling a lot over the summer, but regardless, replacing the reigning champion was going to be an impossible task. 

Hejka said it was simply a “next man up” mentality. 

“We all want him to bowl with us,” Hejka said. “But facts are facts, and reality is reality.”

With Regionals coming up Friday (team) and Saturday (singles), the reality is Franklin has forged on and looks like it might be peaking at the right time. 

Of course, the road has been bumpy, with bowlers who weren’t in the lineup at the Finals last year being thrown into expanded roles, and tough dual losses to rivals in the Kensington Lakes Activities Association during the regular season. 

However, Franklin downed highly-ranked Wayne Memorial in the league tournament last week and is heading into a Regional at Super Bowl in Canton with plenty of confidence.

“We’re coming out of it,” White said. “We’ve been bowling really good the last month. We’ve really come together as a team. As we started bowling better, we started bonding and it’s become a team atmosphere.”

Leading the way has been White, who’s gone from being the other half of Franklin’s anticipated dynamic duo at the beginning of the season to the unquestioned leader both emotionally and in production. 

White has committed to play football in college at Trine University, but he hopes to bowl there as well. 

“Sam has really taken a leadership role, one he probably didn’t expect to take,” Hejka said.

White, the lone bowler in this year’s lineup who competed at the Finals last year, enters this Regional round with an average over 190 and has bowled a high game of 279 this season. 

“It’s a big burden with (Ian) not being able to bowl, but I felt like as a leader and a senior on the team, I needed to step up,” White said. “I needed to cheer on the team and be that leader we were missing without Ian being here.”

Junior Alex Mengel (182 average), junior Michael Lerner (180 average) and senior Ben Sparks (171 average) are all within the top 50 in averages in the KLAA and have become more comfortable as regulars.

The competition at the Regional for the three qualifying spots at the Finals will be stiff, with fellow KLAA and state powers Canton, Belleville, Wayne Memorial and Plymouth also headlining a deep field. 

It will be a huge challenge for Franklin, but one that it’s prepared to take head on after a year of adversity and growth. 

Franklin hopes to show other teams that not only is it dangerous to count out a defending champion, but a defending champion hungry to show it can still win without its star from last year. 

“It comes down to making your spares,” Hejka said. “If we make our spares, we have a shot at the top three.”

Keith DunlapKeith Dunlap has served in Detroit-area sports media for more than two decades, including as a sportswriter at the Oakland Press from 2001-16 primarily covering high school sports but also college and professional teams. His bylines also have appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, the Houston Chronicle and the Boston Globe. He served as the administrator for the Oakland Activities Association’s website from 2017-2020. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties

PHOTO Livonia Franklin’s Sam White bowls during competition; he’s taken on a larger leadership role this season for the reigning Division 1 champion. (Photo courtesy of the Livonia Franklin boys bowling program.)