JACKSON — History was made Friday, and it brought Jim Tesner to tears.
Never before in the history of sports at Essexville Garber High School had a team won an MHSAA Finals championship.
That changed when the girls bowling team won three matches, including a whisker-close Finals match against Clare at JAX 60, to put the first Division 3 Finals trophy in the Essexville Garber case.
And that history was not lost on Tesner.
“I keep repeating this: I always want them to only focus on what’s in front of them and not what’s behind them,” he said. “But there are exceptions, like this trophy we’re going to get. That’s behind us, but it matters.”
After taking a 34-pin lead after the two Baker games at 353-319, Garber used a clean ninth and 10th frame in the regular game to stave off Clare’s comeback. Clare shot 858 in the team game to Garber’s 829, but the Dukes did enough to win 1,182-1,177.
The Finals win provided a fitting end to the Dukes’ season that included an undefeated Tri-Valley Conference record, a conference tournament victory and a Regional championship.
“I don’t know, I’m at a loss for words,” said an emotional Tesner, who has made a couple different stops during his 30-year coaching career but has been with the Dukes for the past decade. “They bought into the system. Last year we missed going to states by 42 pins. We finished fifth (at the Regional). I just kept hammering that and hammering that. We missed so many spares, and this year we stepped up our spare game.”
Those spares came in handy in the Final. With Clare junior Sydney Swartz shooting 210 and senior Jenna Betts tossing 209 in the team game, the Dukes needed every mark. Tesner said Brittany Rohde’s 175 that included just one open frame was critical.
“I don’t know where she came (from), but she dug down,” Tesner said.
Rohde said making school history was the result of hard work.
“Everything we put into our games and practice, it pays off,” Rohde said. “Usually I get down on myself if I don’t do well, but I didn’t get down on myself and I kept my energy up.”
Garber qualified fourth after eight Baker games and two team games and downed Jonesville, 1,173-1,105, in the quarterfinals and then top-seeded Coloma — which shot a 288 Baker game during qualifying — 1,157-1,145 to reach the Final.
Clare qualified second then won its quarterfinal by one pin over Armada, 1,086-1,085, and beat third-seeded Caro, 1,131-1,110.
For the boys, Armada won its second Finals trophy and first since 2015 by getting out to a huge lead after the Baker games and holding its breath in the team game while Boyne City mounted a comeback.
In the end, Armada had enough in the tank for a 1,230-1,215 victory.
“It means a lot. It’s awesome to work with people for so long and have something like this happen,” said coach Jim Carl, who started the program in 2003. “It just shows that all of our hard work paid off.”
Armada struggled through qualifying, squeezing in as the eighth seed, then got into a 93-pin crater after the Baker games against top-seeded Cheboygan in the quarterfinals. The Tigers righted the ship just in time to post a 1,039 team game and get past Cheboygan, 1,355-1,304.
They beat Birch Run by 173 pins in the semifinals and darted out to an 82-pin lead on Boyne City after throwing six strikes in each Baker game to go up 394-312.
Boyne City was undaunted during the first portion of the team game, essentially tying things up around the sixth frame, but Dylan Malinowski threw six of seven strikes between the fourth and the 10th frames to create some breathing room.
“It feels really amazing. It’s my first year coming to states, so it’s a really exciting moment for me,” Malinowski said. “I just step up to the line, clear my mind and do my thing.”
Boyne City’s Mike Deming shot 219 in the team game, which the Ramblers won 903-836. The Ramblers, who made their first Finals appearance, qualified second then beat Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 1,207-1,187, and Sanford Meridian, 1,310-1,200.
WATERFORD – All Waterford Mott head boys bowling coach Rob Hanson wanted to do was have a personal practice session.
Little did he know it would randomly plant a seed that would eventually produce some state high school bowling history.
More than two years ago, after finding some rare time outside his coaching duties to work on his own game at a local center, Hanson noticed a kid coming in with his grandmother to bowl.
Hanson immediately took notice of how well the kid was bowling and the fact he had a pair of Waterford Mott soccer shorts on. So he asked the kid, then-sophomore Brendan Riley, if he went to the school.
After Riley told Hanson that he did, Hanson had another question for him.
“Why didn’t you try out for bowling?” Hanson said.
Riley said at the time, his mother wasn’t familiar with the bowling team’s schedule and thought it would take too much time away from school.
Once Hanson explained the schedule to the family, Riley ended up trying out after all and made the JV team.
Weeks later, Riley worked his way up to varsity.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After bowling on the varsity for a majority of his sophomore year, Riley as a junior last year won the Division 1 Finals singles championship, capping a rapid rise to the top that might not have happened if not for that chance encounter.
“It was quite surprising,” Riley said. “I wasn’t expecting to see the coach that day. I was just going up to have a good time with my grandma.”
Last year for Riley turned out to be all about his individual success, as he led the Lakes Valley Conference with a 217 average and ended up seeded No. 8 out of the Finals qualifying block.
Riley then rolled to the title, earning a 14-pin win over Mattawan’s Charlie Johnson in the final.
For Riley, his success at the MHSAA Tournament boiled down to one thing: Composure.
“I think the only reason I won was because I had the best attitude,” said Riley, who also was a member of Mott’s soccer team in the fall. “Everyone I bowled in the match play started to get upset at themselves every time they got a split or when they didn’t get a strike.”
As a senior, Riley’s average actually has been down a little compared to last year’s 207, but what his teammates have done has been a bigger testament of his success – and made it even more enjoyable than what he accomplished last year as an individual.
Riley enters Friday’s Regional tournament third on Mott in average behind teammates Dylan Keating and Zechariah Thomas, but that is more a reflection of the improvement those two have shown and how they were inspired by what Riley did last year.
“He hasn’t had a bad year,” Hanson said of Riley. “It’s just that his success is breeding desire for everyone else. His leadership quality is amazing.”
Mott will travel Friday to Century Bowl with four tournament titles, including winning the LVC championship, and a 15-1 record.
Bowling is as fickle a sport as any, but no doubt the Corsairs are contenders if they bowl as they’re capable.
“As a team, it feels a lot better to get more things accomplished beyond just myself,” Riley said.
Riley also has a college future, as he has signed to bowl for Goshen College in Indiana as part of the first recruiting class for the new program.
An individual title last year, team domination so far this season and a future in college bowling? That’s a great crop of greatness that was planted simply by running into Hanson that one day.
“It’s a great story,” Hanson said.
Keith 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
PHOTOS (Top) Waterford Mott’s Brendan Riley finds his shot during a match. (Middle) Riley takes a post-tournament photo after winning last season’s singles championship. (Top photo courtesy of the Riley family.)