LANSING – Jeff Wyers is a rare coach who has reached the pinnacle as a coach and player.
Wyers, who was on the Grass Lake baseball team that won the Class D title in 1988, led the Warriors to the Division 4 boys team bowling title Friday.
“These kids don’t just bowl,” he said. “They hang out and have fun as friends. It brings you out as better bowlers and better athletes. We had great unity when I was in high school with the kids I played with. I think it goes a long way.”
Grass Lake won its second MHSAA Finals title by rolling past Farwell in the championship match, 1,257-1,104. The title was the program's first since 2011.
The Eagles got there by beating Rogers City by more than 300 pins in the semifinals, which worried Wyers when the Warriors got off to a slow start in the final.
“We bowled 153-158 in the Baker games, and they weren’t far behind us at that point,” Wyers said. “We average 203 in Baker, so 150-something is way below our par and I thought, wow, they could jump back in at any minute and we could be in trouble.”
But in the regular game, four of the five Grass Lake bowlers bowled 178 or better, while only one Farwell bowler rolled above 166.
Leading the way was Bradley Ramsey, who rolled a 221 the week after being left off the roster for Regional Singles.
“Bradley was lights-out all the way through,” Wyers said. “We have a seven-man team, and when you go to states you can only enter six. For him to step up the way he did was phenomenal.”
Jack Stapleton added a 216 for the Warriors.
The Division 4 title made up for a disappointing singles showing at the Regional.
“We got two in, but we were shooting for five, so we weren’t enthused,” Wyers said.
Wyers completed his second year coaching the Warriors after taking over just before the 2018-19 season began.
Bronson girls coach Tammy Smith, meanwhile, coached the Vikings to their second consecutive title in her first year running the team. She did also lead them to the championship in 2019 as an assistant, guiding the girls while the boys bowled simultaneously in their Final.
This title was the girls' second in four years as a program.
“The key for this team is they just stay together and everyone keeps each other up,” Smith said. “Everyone plays a part.”
Seniors Harlee Davis and Dakota Smith, along with junior Aubrey Weinberg, played key roles in Bronson’s back-to-back titles.
The Bronson boys fell just short in their bid for a three-peat, finishing ninth, 17 pins out of a spot in the bracket.
As a program, girls and boys together, Bronson has won four Finals titles over nine overall seasons; the boys team just completed its fifth.
The Vikings girls prevailed over a Kent City team, 1,095-974, that had four freshmen and a sophomore competing in the championship round.
“I’m just happy we made it through this far,” Smith said. “Hopefully the girls do well (Saturday, at the Singles Finals), and we bring home another title.”
Asked if it might be tougher on the coach than the bowlers in a championship round, Smith laughed.
“Sometimes, yes,” Smith said. “We’re always wishing they do well, knowing we can’t help them out other than being encouraging.”
Rogers City’s bowling team is on a roll. And the Hurons haven’t even had their first competition of the season.
Rogers City has a decorated past, including winning the first state bowling championship in 1999, organized by the Bowling Center Association of Michigan, against a field including schools of all sizes and five years before the addition of MHSAA Finals in the sport. The boys team also was the Division 4 team runner-up at the first Class C-D Finals hosted by the MHSAA in 2004.
The Hurons hope to return to those glory days by bringing back experienced bowlers on both the boys and girls teams. Rogers City last qualified teams for the Finals in 2020 – when both the boys and girls advanced – and both teams hope to make a run at the Northern Michigan Conference title and land a spot at this season’s Finals in March.
The boys did find success last year — with just four bowlers — placing ahead of a handful of teams at its Regional. This year, Rogers City has a full boys team, and more, including junior Gavin Rhode, who qualified for the Singles Finals last year. The Hurons also are returning senior Conner Muller and sophomore Gabe Mina; Muller narrowly missed qualifying for the Finals last winter. And they are excited to see how first-year bowlers Blaise Szatkowski, Cooper Heinzel, George Karsten, Jacob Wickersham and Ryan Morgan perform.
The girls are returning seniors Arianna Anderson and Sophia Mina and sophomore Olivia Reyes. First-year bowlers Ruby Svay – an exchange student – and freshman Brooke Crawford compose the rest of the squad.
Both the boys and the girls have added strong bowlers with incoming freshmen, including Wickersham, a 180-average bowler.
“With a small school you kind of know what is coming along,” long-time coach Brian Bannasch said. “Even with our limited numbers last year, we were still competitive.”
The Hurons will open their season Jan. 6. As has been the case for years, matches will take place on Saturdays for optimal lane availability.
“After the success previous to COVID, the last couple years have really been a letdown just not having enough bodies,” Bannasch acknowledged. “We still sent kids to the state finals individually, but team-wise were just lacking numbers with a small school that has under 175 in the high school.
“When you lose any number of kids, it is tough to replace them,” he continued. “We are really excited to have numbers this year.”
The bowling program has been battling lower overall school enrollment and competing with basketball and wrestling teams for roster numbers.
Long hours in the alley for practice, traveling for matches and competing are paying off for the Hurons. Those long hours are the same for the coaches, forcing absence from the family business.
But it’s being done with a focus on a road trip to the Division 4 Finals in March, at Northway Lanes in Muskegon.
The boys and girls Regionals, hosted by Traverse City Christian, will be held at Lucky Jacks in Traverse City.
“We definitely have individuals expecting to qualify as individuals on the boys side,” Bannasch said. “We have three girls that have bowled before and fewer teams in each Regional.
“We had a pretty powerful Regional,” he continued. “Maybe with fewer teams, it could work to our advantage.”
Bannasch, whose family owns the local bowling alley Nautical Lanes, has been the boys and girls bowling coach from the beginning at Rogers City. The school started with a club team prior to making it a varsity sport.
Bannasch has seen a lot of talented bowlers develop through his youth programs and then vie for championships in high school. The Hurons often have had more than a dozen bowlers on the boys team.
Bannasch points to every bowler in Rogers City history competing in at least one varsity match every year as key to the team’s historical success. His unique philosophy of participation often has paid dividends.
“One of the things that has helped us be successful is that I have a little different philosophy than most coaches,” Bannasch noted. “We’ve had years where we’ve had 12 or 14 boys and 10 girls.
“We had JV matches, but we never consider it JV – they were all part of the varsity bowling team,” he continued. “In the next year, they have experienced that and know what the varsity match is all about.”
Bannasch also has watched other conference schools win or contend for Finals titles, something he points to with pride.
Bannasch spotlighted Cheboygan’s boys having won the Division 2 title in 2009 and Boyne City’s boys — as a newer program — finishing Division 3 runners-up in 2020 and 2021. Cheboygan’s girls finished Division 3 runners-up in 2022.
“Our success has been great, but I take just as much pride in the success of our conference,” Bannasch said. “We’re such a close-knit conference, it is great to see anybody up here be successful at it.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Rogers City’s bowling teams have high aspirations this winter with their first competitions coming up next month. (Middle) Gavin Rhode, a Finals qualifier last season, practices recently. (Below) Arianna Anderson, left, and Sophia Mina are seniors on the girls team. (Photos by Richard Lamb/Presque Isle Newspapers.)