BATTLE CREEK – Not long after they claimed their Division 4 high school bowling singles championships, both Collin Baldwin and Mackenzie Johnson thought back to people who impacted them during their freshman years.
Baldwin proved “some kid” was wrong three years ago, while Johnson paid further homage to her father, who died shortly after her freshman season.
Baldwin, a Napoleon senior, and Johnson, a Vandercook Lake senior, won their MHSAA Finals titles Saturday at M-66 Bowl in Battle Creek, becoming the first Cascades Conference duo to win titles in the same season since Adam LaRoe of Napoleon and Malloree Ambs of Vandercook Lake claimed 2013 crowns.
In front of what sounded like the entire town of Napoleon – the crescendo of cheers getting louder with each successive strike – Baldwin stormed out to a 98-pin lead after the first game in the title match and needed nearly all of it as New Lothrop senior Tate Steinborn rallied but fell short in a 396-366 match.
About 15 minutes later, and eight lanes over, Johnson polished off her second straight Division 4 championship by rolling strikes on five of the first six frames of the second game to defeat Bronson junior Dakota Smith 364-333. Johnson became only the second girl in MHSAA bowling history to repeat as an individual champion, joining Jordan Richard of Tecumseh who won Division 2 titles in 2012 and 2013.
Moments after winning the school’s second Finals singles championship, an emotional Baldwin hugged dozens of teammates, family and fans who made the trek from Napoleon.
“I have a huge support section from my team, family, other teams,” Baldwin said. “I’ve made a lot of friends through this, and they’re all very nice and very supportive of me. I’m just thankful for bowling.”
He had perhaps the most thankless road to the championship, having to face 2017 Finals champion Brandon Hyska of Bronson in the quarterfinals and Vandercook Lake senior Korey Reichard in the semifinals. Baldwin edged Hyska 343-339 with a clutch mark in the 10th frame of the second game, then overcame a 26-pin deficit to Reichard after the first game to win 364-354.
“They’re both really great bowlers,” Baldwin said of Hyska and Reichard. “I’m happy to have bowled with them through high school. They got bad breaks, and I got some good ones. I was relaxed for the most part (going into the championship match), because I had just knocked out Brandon and Korey who had both bowled really good today. Going into the finals, I felt pretty confident in myself and just stuck to my game.”
Baldwin threw eight strikes during a clean 247 to Steinborn’s 149 in a battle of bowlers who employ the ever popular two-handed delivery style. Baldwin went cold in the second game with four opens through nine frames while Steinborn carried a four-bagger and made things interesting. But needing strings of strikes to make up the deficit, Steinborn came up short and Baldwin secured the championship.
“It feels great,” said Napoleon coach Randy Chesney, who also coached the two-handed LaRoe to his Finals championship six years ago. “Collin’s really worked hard, probably harder than any kid I’ve ever had, so he really deserved it. And it was probably the toughest bracket to get through today.”
And that “kid” from three years ago?
“Freshman year, some kid told me I couldn’t bowl two-handed,” said Baldwin, who plans to attend and bowl at Jackson College in the fall. “And I made my goal to be better than him, and I did that today.”
For Johnson, the repeat championship helped cement her among the greats in the storied history of Vandercook Lake bowling and provided proper punctuation to close out Todd Reichard’s 18 seasons as coach.
Johnson trailed after the first game of the championship 170-163. Despite two late open frames the second game, she finished off a 201 to Smith’s 163 to win. Never far from her thoughts was her father, Brad Johnson, who died of an inoperable brain tumor in 2016. He was 49.
“I always feel him in a bowling alley,” she said. “That was the person sixth-grade year, nine hours in a bowling alley a day it felt like. He’d be back there getting his steps in with his Fitbit. I’m always feeling him. If I get lucky on a shot, it’s thanks to Brad. I look up and, ‘Thanks, Brad. You were right.’”
There through every step of her high school years was her mother, Kris, a woman Mackenzie Johnson called “my rock.”
“Throughout this whole thing, my mom is my everything. She’s my rock. She’s my person,” she said. “That is the person I look up to. She’s motivated me to do this. She is my drive. She’s why I do my high school sports; that’s why I’m so competitive. She’s my everything.”
Also there through every step was Reichard, who closed out his high school coaching career guiding his sixth Finals singles champion. Reichard will focus on coaching the Concordia University women’s bowling program, and it seemed fitting that Johnson was the final high school bowler he coached.
“She’s like a daughter to me. Totally amazing,” Reichard said. “There’s nothing she can’t do with a bowling ball. She told me to just (put a bowling ball in her hands) and she can do anything with it. She’s a leader, kids look up to her. She can be tough on them, but she’s a great player. I don’t know where she ranks at Vandercook, but she’s got to be one of the best.”
He might not have seen the last of Johnson, though. She is considering Concordia if she decides to bowl at the next level.
“Todd’s everything I could ask for in a coach and more,” Johnson said. “I honestly don’t plan to bowl anywhere but Concordia. I just thank him for the four seasons he helped me through.”
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.)