KALAMAZOO — Three years ago, 12-year-old Trevor Morgan became the youngest bowler in the Kalamazoo area to throw a sanctioned 300 game.
So far Morgan hasn’t duplicated the feat except in practice, but the sophomore is the top scorer on his Loy Norrix team with a 202 average.
After starting the season with a 1-2 record, the Knights rallied to a second-place finish in the Southwest Michigan High School Bowling Conference’s top division this season, winning their last five matches.
Portage Northern (8-0) won the division.
As teams head into the MHSAA Division 1 Regionals Feb. 26-27 at Royal Scot Golf and Bowl in Grand Ledge, Morgan has two goals: He hopes to return to the MHSAA Finals as an individual, and he would be thrilled if the team also qualified.
“It would be awesome,” he exclaimed. “We have Connor (Thomas) who’s a junior and Bailey (Brandt) who’s a sophomore and didn’t bowl last year.
“Trentin (Hohler) is a newcomer and I’d love to go to states this year as a team. It would be awesome.”
Morgan missed the final cut by four pins last year, but the experience was eye-opening.
“I learned that there’s a lot of other good bowlers out there,” he said. “I’m not the only one.
“I know I can bowl around here, but I got there and bowled against all those kids who are seniors and who have been bowling just as long, if not longer, than I have.”
Morgan started bowling at age 2, but his father would not allow him to use the bumpers.
“He would stand out there, put his finger on second arrow and say ‘Hit my finger, hit my finger,’” he said.
Although he’s bowled in junior leagues and tournaments, Morgan said he loves the excitement of high school bowling.
“In high school, I feel my team supports me,” he said. “We all support each other. In junior leagues, it’s like go up, throw a shot, turn back around, high five.
“On the team, we get loud. You throw a strike, you get loud. You just get pumped up. You’re basically bowling for yourself in junior leagues.”
Experienced leaders at the top
All of that experience led to coach Mike Brandt naming Morgan captain last year as a freshman and this year as well.
“It’s not so much because of how he bowls, but how he acts and helps out,” said Brandt, who has coached the team for almost six years.
He took over midseason when his son, Zach, was a freshman and the team had no coach.
“I’ve been a (United State Bowling Congress) certified coach for about 20 years, so I knew how to coach,” Brandt said. “I just didn’t know that much about high school.
“Zach is (now) an assistant and he’s helped me build the program. All five years, either boys or girls finished first or second in league.”
Brandt said he doesn’t like to cut anyone from the team because, “I have what I call a practice squad. I feel if I cut kids, they have no chance to get better.
“Once I know a match is won, I pull the starters as soon as I can and let the others play to give them the experience.”
He also starts each practice with stretching exercises and drills such as a bowler’s approach.
“I stress fundamentals and spare shooting,” he said. “I’m a very big spare-shooting coach.”
With no seniors and just one junior among the starting five, Brandt knows he has a young team but has seen improvement throughout the season. He also knows the challenges of regional and state competition.
“There are a lot of nerves,” he said. “The east side of the state is huge. It’s very difficult to beat those guys.”
Thomas’ 185 average is second-best on the team while Brandt, the coach’s son, is third at 181 and Hohler, a sophomore, fourth at 151.
Currently, freshman Steve London (139) bowls in the fifth spot.
Others on the team are seniors Haruto Kumasaka and Seth Harding; sophomores Peyton Spinney and Harry Norder and freshman Brandon Worden.
“Trevor probably has the most experience and a willingness to win,” the coach said. “He and Bailey are probably the best at that.
“When they’re up there, even if they’re in a bad mood, they give it their all.”
It’s a team game
Once in high school, the teens had to learn a new form of bowling: Baker games where the first person bowls the first and sixth frames, the second bowls the second and seventh, and so on.
Morgan usually bowls the fifth and 10th frames.
“I like (Bakers),” he said. “I think it’s a challenge because you have to put five guys together who have to collaborate. You have to watch the person in front of you bowling.
“I normally bowl anchor and Bailey’s in front of me, so I can base off what the oil pattern is doing for Bailey and he bases off the guy before him and so on.”
In league competition, bowlers have two regular and two Baker games, but in Team Regionals it’s three regular and six Baker.
“I keep them going, make them bowl more games than they want,” the coach said. “These next two weeks, they’ll bowl more games than they ever had in practices. I’m very much into drills.
“My philosophy is we work in practice so we can have fun on the lanes on Saturdays. You have to have fun because this is a game. If you’re not having fun, there’s no use doing it.”
Thomas, who has bowled on the team all three years and is usually the leadoff bowler, said for the team to qualify for the Finals, “it’s going to take a lot of spares and a lot of people focusing in and actually committing to making it.”
It’s Bailey Brandt’s first year on the team, but having his dad as his coach is nothing new: “He’s been my coach my entire life,” he said.
Hohler is also in his first-year on the team, sparked by some friends from his junior league team.
“They were bowling on the team at Portage Central and Portage Northern,” he said. Unfortunately for him, “We lost to both of them this year.”
Coach Brandt said Hohler has improved a lot.
“We made a lot of changes with him, and he’s stepped up,” Brandt said. And that’s one of the reasons Hohler likes the high school league.
“It’s more organized, and you learn a lot more,” he said. “I started out bowling straight, and now I’m hooking it.”
Thomas also enjoys high school bowling.
“Your teammates can hold you up when you’re not having a good day,” he said. “Even if you don’t take your point, you can help toward the total team score.”
Pam 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 firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Trevor Morgan works through a drill during a recent Loy Norrix practice. (Middle) Coach Mike Brandt, Trevor Morgan, Connor Thomas. (Below) Bailey Brandt rolls during one of the team's practice drills. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)
HOWELL – The Fowlerville bowling program started with a question.
Brent 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.
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.
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.
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 MHSAA.com's editorial content and has served as MHSAA Communications Director since January 2021. Contact him at Geoff@mhsaa.com 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.)