Pennfield Aims to Build on Historic Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

December 19, 2017

BATTLE CREEK — The Battle Creek Pennfield bowling teams are building impressive resumes again this winter after finishing the 2016-17 season on a historical note.

The Panthers capped last season by claiming both the Division 3 girls and boys singles championships – becoming the first program in MHSAA history to sweep the Singles Finals – and a day after Pennfield’s boys won the Division 3 team title.

The success has continued into a new campaign. Last weekend, the girls and boys teams won the Battle Creek All-City tournament, the girls’ ninth consecutive title and the boys’ seventh. Both teams are 2-0 in dual matches with Interstate 8 Athletic Conference play beginning in January. And the boys earned the 100th win in school history two weeks ago against Sturgis – joining the girls, who reached the century mark last season.

Both James Ruoff and Haley Hooper are back this season after claiming those individual Finals championships in March. Both teams also are building for title attempts, although admittedly that path should be more treacherous this winter – Pennfield moved into Division 2, where it is one of the smallest schools.

Boys ready to climb again

The Panthers’ boys slowly worked their way up to last season’s team title, finishing third at the Finals in 2015 and second in 2016.

Program director Mike Roach, who works with both teams, credits fourth-year coach Rickie Hinds with the boys’ success.

“The first year I coached we were 0-11 and the boys never jelled,” Hinds said. “They never came together as a team, so I started preaching team unity and relying on each other. It’s not an individual sport.

“They came together at the end (of the 2016 season) and we ended up in third place. The second year after that, they jelled and we were .500. We ran into some stiff competition – let me tell you. They made a run to second.

“Last year, we won it all. It was a great feeling to win it all.”

Ruoff, a junior who has been bowling since he was 2 years old, threw a 300 last year and amassed an 800 series this year, both in youth leagues.

“Lindy Burton, owner of M-66, got me started,” he said. “My entire family bowled out here. 

“Once I turned 4 she got me my first ball, and that’s when I really got into the youth leagues.”

Hinds said bowling is Ruoff’s passion.

“He was the young one, just a sophomore (last year), but he does a lot of extracurricular bowling,” the coach said. “He’s the one who has it in his heart; the burning, the yearning.

“The other guys bowl and like it but have other sports or interests. But when they came together as a team, they won it all.”

Ruoff said high school bowling intrigued him.

“I went to a few matches and Coach Roach talked to me when I was younger,” he said. “We’d been to some matches with my parents, and we saw how everything went,

“I like to bowl, a lot. As soon as I saw the competition, I was excited.”

Last season’s Division 3 Finals were rolled at M-66 Bowl, Pennfield’s home lanes, which was good and bad, Ruoff said.

 “Not (good) so much for the bowling because this house plays really tough, but having all my bowling family behind me made a big difference,” said Ruoff, who was the 15th seed and upset second seed Adrian Hall of Corunna, 416-313, in the first round.

That was a reverse deja vu.

“The year before, I was the third seed bowling against the 14th seed, and I got knocked out first round so I had the confidence that I could do it,” Ruoff added.

In the championship match, Ruoff defeated Shepherd’s Jonah Montney, 395-349.

Ruoff, who lugs six 15-pound balls “with different cores, different drillings, different layouts” to each competition, also sparked the Panthers’ 1312-1129 win over Corunna for the team title the day before.

In his fourth season of varsity bowling, senior Sean Young also has been with Pennfield’s program since the rise began.

“That was all the tension buildup for us,” he said of the title run. “We were tired of losing.

“Our coach helped us with that. He’s a big mentor for us. When we’re down, he tells us how to get back up.”

Seeded 16th individually, Young lost to top seed Gage Nickelson from Wyoming Kelloggsville, 452-410, in the first round of singles but, “I ended up ninth in state because my series were so high first round.”

A key to a repeat team title is spares, he said.

“That was our biggest thing last year. We really, really improved on our spares,” he added. “If we repeat, we’ll be first team in the state to move up a division and repeat, so that’s our goal.”

Hooper leads focused girls team

Hooper’s road to the title was similar to Ruoff’s path.

As the 16th seed, she upset top seed Kendra Grandy of Birch Run, 371-301, in the first round.

In the championship match she defeated Hannah Bergsma of Grand Rapids South Christian, 399-325.

Hooper is not one to bask in her success.

“I never felt like I had it won until the end of my final match,” she said. “It was mixed feelings. I was on cloud nine, but the other girl was really upset and I know she could have beat me on any given day.

“Winning state was definitely a great experience, but I also know that a lot of those girls could beat me on any day. I had a good day.”

Hooper’s success is fueled by her ability to pick up spares, Roach said.

“She hits her target every time and if she doesn’t get a strike, she picks up her spares,” the coach said.

“She’s an outstanding spare shooter. She’s the most consistent.”

This season’s Division 2 tournament is at Super Bowl in Canton (M-66 also will again host Finals, but in Division 4.). And the Pennfield girls are of course motivated to make it a two-day event.

Bowling in the team competition the day before singles is a big help, Hooper said.

“It helped warm me up and get used to the lanes, but (it was tough) because it was so disappointing from losing the day before and then coming back the next day,” she said.

After the girls team won Regionals last year, it narrowly fell to Caro 1122-1120 at the Finals in the first round of match play.

Hooper said last year the team did not really bond, but this year the girls know what is important to advance.

“Staying focused in practice and really being a team,” she said. “It’s more team bonding and coming together as a family.”

Seniors dominate the boys team, which has just two underclassemen – Ruoff and freshman Carson Dyer.

Seniors besides Young are Trace Davis, Joe Larsen and Nick Hohnberger.

Just four girls join Hooper are their team: senior Megan Elwell, juniors Makayla Skidmore and Kelsey Kipp and sophomore Stephanie Woodman.

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 with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Haley Hooper, left, and James Ruoff practice recently; they were the Division 3 singles champs last season. (Middle) Senior Sean Young gets in some practice work. (Below) Clockwise from top left: Pennfield coaches Mike Roach and Rickie Hinds, Hooper and Ruoff. (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.)