Bowling coaches in Macomb County point to a number of factors to explain why high school programs in their county have been and remain so highly competitive.
One is tradition – and another is the automotive industry.
Greg Villasurda is in his sixth season coaching the girls program at St. Clair Shores Lake Shore, and he’s worked for Chrysler Corporation for the past 25 years. A graduate of Clinton Township Clintondale, Villasurda has been a bowler since his youth – and he said where he grew up, there were bowling establishments seemingly on every corner.
“I could walk to my bowling alley,” he said. “There were so many good bowlers back then. When I grew up, we didn’t have competitive bowling. We bowled for recreation. Back then all the dads worked for the Big 3, and they all bowled. That’s what you did.”
The numbers tell the tale of how that bowling way of life has cultivated success at the local high school level.
It should be noted that teams in other areas, like Genesee, Oakland and Wayne counties, also have excelled in high school bowling over the last 15 seasons. But since 2005, teams from Macomb County have won nine MHSAA Division 1 Finals titles (five boys, four girls) and finished second seven times (four for the boys, three for the girls).
Bowling is a sport the entire family can enjoy together and, in an odd way, this is how Villasurda became involved with coaching. His daughter Taylor was a freshman at Lake Shore in 2013 when she tried out for volleyball but was cut.
“She was really upset she didn’t make (the volleyball team),” Villasurda said. “She came home and said one of her friends was on the bowling team and (that) she wanted to bowl. I said, ‘What?’ She said yes and I said, well, let’s go. I bought her a ball, but it was just two weeks before tryouts. So we bowled every day to get her ready. She goes to try out and bowls a 216 and beat everybody. That opened up the floodgates.”
Taylor graduated from Lake Shore in 2017 and attends Siena Heights, where she competes on the bowling team.
Last season, Villasurda had one of the state’s top bowlers and a title-contending team. Led by then-junior Dani Decruydt – the 2019 Division 1 singles runner-up – Lake Shore qualified for the Division 1 Team Final by placing third at its Regional, and the Shorians finished a respectable eighth at the championship tournament. Lake Shore was also co-champ (with Macomb Dakota) in the Macomb Area Conference Red. Lake Shore, the smallest school by enrollment in the Red, had won the division title outright in 2019 and was second in 2018, Decruydt’s freshman year.
Lake Shore is a good example of the overall strength of the programs Macomb County. A member of the MAC Gold in 2016, Lake Shore moved to the Red where perennially strong programs like Dakota and L’Anse Creuse North compete. The Shorians took their lumps that first season within the division, but has competed well since. With all but one starter returning this season, Lake Shore is expected to be in the mix again.
Utica Eisenhower’s boys won their program’s first MHSAA Finals championship last season, as the Eagles came from behind in the final few frames to defeat Salem by five pins in the Division 1 championship match.
Eisenhower was a member of the MAC White last season and entered the MHSAA tournament ranked No. 1. Coach John Snider is in his seventh season this winter, and his experienced team is competing now in the MAC Red.
“The competition is extremely strong in the county,” Snider said. “The people I worked with in the MAC, the guys are so dedicated, so knowledgeable about the sport. They are good, solid, caring people. There are a lot of people committed to making this sport a success.”
Eisenhower’s top bowler is Carter Milasinovich, one of five juniors returning. Milasinovich averaged in the mid-220s the past two seasons and is backed by fellow juniors Nolan Horne and Jacob Matheson, whose mother Lisa Matheson coaches the girls varsity team.
The bowling community is a tightly-knit group. Proprietors, according to Snider, have bent over backward in their attempts to serve the public at large and the students competing in the sport. Snider said practices have been all but eliminated because of COVID-19 restrictions on the hours bowling centers can be open and how many people proprietors can accommodate.
“I’m real proud of the organization and the people behind us,” Snider said. “It’s a labor of love for all of us.”
Snider has bowled nearly his entire life and, like many, got his start through his parents who also bowled. One reason he got into coaching was the opportunity he had to coach his son during his senior year.
Eisenhower had its share of success before last season, as the Eagles had won the MAC White three of the last four seasons. But 2020 was magical. Eisenhower won six tournaments before going to the Finals. The Eagles trailed Salem until the final frame before pulling out the title-clinching victory.
“We were down like 70 to 80 pins in the seventh,” Snider said. “We talked all year about being gentlemen and not giving up, and I was thinking about the speech I was going to give them after we lost. I’m glad I didn’t have to give it.”
Eisenhower opened this season Jan. 30 with a strong victory (18-12) over Sterling Heights Stevenson. Those two teams plus Dakota are expected to challenge for the division title.
Last season Dakota, the MHSAA Division 1 champion in 2011 and ’12, and L’Anse Creuse North – the Division 1 runner-up in 2016 – tied for the Red title just as they did in 2018. Dakota captured the division title outright in 2019.
Dakota was a Regional champion last season and the top seed going into the Finals Round of 16, but was defeated by Davison in the first match.
“It happens,” Dakota coach Jason Kavanagh said of the loss to Davison. “We had a great year. Heck, we had a Baker game of 300, and I’ve only seen that one other time in my five years of coaching.”
Dakota always seems to be in the mix when it comes to deciding the Division 1 champion, and with five seniors returning, including Gregory Guzik, this season should be no different. The school will sponsor three junior varsity teams, one more than last year.
“There’s a level we try to keep (at Dakota),” Kavanagh said. “We don’t want to be arrogant. We don’t need that. We want to be confident. We want to be the best team out on those lanes.”
Kavanagh points to the tradition at the school and in the community, as well as the sport being passed on from generation to generation as keys to bowling being so popular and thus, competitive, in the county.
“A lot of it has to do with their parents who are good bowlers,” he said. “And they’re having the kids come here and compete carrying on what they’ve done.
“Plus being in the MAC Red, the competition is so tough. The better the competition, the better you bowl.”
This bowling fever is not limited to the Red or the White divisions, nor is it just in the northern part of the county. Craig Geml is in his eighth season at Warren Woods Tower, a member of the MAC Gold. The last seven he’s coached both the boys and girls programs. Noah Tafanelli, a senior this season, won the MHSAA Division 2 individual title last season. Tafanelli’s sister, Kayla, was a freshman last season and advanced to the Division 2 singles semifinals.
Geml contends that much of the success programs like his and many in the county have achieved got its start on Detroit’s eastside. Geml grew up in the 7 Mile Road and Kelly Road area in Detroit, and attended Harper Woods Notre Dame, a school that bordered Detroit’s city limits. Geml won a number of amateur bowling tournaments before competing in the sport while attending Wayne State University.
“Bowling was a working-man’s game, a middle class sport, back then,” Geml said. “It’s what you did. I bowled at two different lanes back then in Detroit, and that’s what your friends did. It’s a family-oriented sport. It’s almost hereditary. It’s grown into your physique.”
As time progressed and families moved further north into Macomb County, they took the sport with them and introduced it to their children.
Geml’s teams have won eight MAC Gold titles (boys and girls combined) and he’s proud of the success they’ve earned. Both squads have four starters returning this winter. And although neither team reached the MHSAA Finals a year ago, Geml did have six of his bowlers (out of 10) qualify as individuals.
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at email@example.com with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Utica Eisenhower's Jacob Matheson follows through on a roll for the reigning Division 1 champion. (Middle) St. Clair Shores Lake Shore's Dani Decruydt was the Division 1 singles runner-up in 2019. (Photos courtesy of the Eisenhower and Lake Shore bowling programs, respectively.)
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.)