By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
CANTON — The movie McFarland, USA was based on the real story of a championship cross country program in California, but embellished one important detail.
For the sake of drama, Disney condensed the championship-building process into only one season for the fledgling program. In reality, it took eight years for McFarland to win its first state title.
The story of the Lansing Eastern boys bowling program reads like a work of fiction, but is a true story that doesn't need Hollywood to jazz it up.
In only the second season after their program was restored, the Quakers won the MHSAA Division 2 championship in a showdown with two-time reigning champion Flint Kearsley on Friday at Super Bowl. Eastern had a score of 1,444 to Kearsley's 1,288.
"We were definitely gunning for it this year, for sure, but in the back of our minds we weren't expecting to win it, especially in this kind of fashion," said Dennis Crump, who rolled a team-best 246 for Eastern in the regular game. "It's definitely nice to win it."
It was the first MHSAA championship for Eastern's athletic program since the softball team beat Warren Cousino, 8-0, to capture the 1981 Class A title.
Kearsley's girls were able to successfully three-peat, beating Jackson by a score of 1,249 to 1,111.
Kearsley is a tournament-tested program, but Eastern didn't even have a program for three years from 2011-12 to 2013-14. In their former incarnation, the Quakers never sent a team to the MHSAA Finals, though they did have four individual qualifiers from 2007-11.
Current coach Billy Salazar has no idea why Eastern dropped bowling, but he knew the school needed to put a team back together when he saw the level of talent coming up in the ranks. The Quakers finished fourth in the Regional in their first season back, one spot behind Ionia for the final berth in the MHSAA Finals.
"We had a core of guys who were going into their freshman year," Salazar said. "A mom wanted high school bowling, so I thought it would be kind of a shame to let that kind of talent not have a bowling team. When she asked me to coach, I agreed to coach. We were very close last year to getting through the Regional, and everybody came back."
It was anybody's championship to win following two Baker games, as Eastern held a 452-445 edge over Kearsley.
"That Baker set, we knew we had to keep it close, because we knew they were going to give us a run for our money in the team game," Crump said. "During the team game, a lot of our guys stepped up and we went on a run and just sailed on that momentum."
It was still a close match through six frames of the regular game, with Eastern leading by 22 pins. The Quakers broke it open from there to knock off the Hornets, who beat Eastern by 110 pins to take the Regional championship.
"Our team chemistry was really off," Eastern senior Victor Riojas said of last year's team. "It took a lot of time for us to get the bond we have now."
In the final game, Crump rolled 242, Juan Medellin 212, Riojas 202, Justin Genson 182 and Kyle Lewis 150 for Eastern.
Phil Hawes rolled 190 to lead Kearsley. Brandon Wheeler rolled 184, Zach Timm 158, Brice McKerchive 157 and Chad Stephen 154 for the Hornets.
"We kind of ran into a buzzsaw," Kearsley coach Bart Rutledge said. "We made a few mistakes, and they capitalized on them and built on them. We just weren't able to keep up."
In the girls tournament, Kearsley won its fourth championship in the last five years. Only the boys cross country program, with five, has won more MHSAA titles for Kearsley than the girls bowling team has managed in the 13-year history of its sport’s tournament.
A fifth title could be coming soon for the Hornets, as they were led by freshman Alexis Roof, who rolled a 200. No. 1 bowler Hannah Ploof had an off day, rolling a combined score of 161 with freshman Mary Wheeler, who had a spare after Ploof's strike in the 10th frame. Karlee Griffin was the primary bowler in a score of 164, which she split with Emma Boychuk. Barbara Hawes was the main bowler who split a 158 with Kayla Ward. Alexxa Flood rolled a solo 150.
Roof had five strikes and three spares in the first eight frames before rolling a gutter ball in the ninth. She turned away from the lane, put her head down and laughed. She could afford to when she was bowling so well and her team had built a formidable 416-262 lead after two Baker games.
"I was just kind of like, 'Whatever, I'll come back the next frame,'" Roof said. "I had a good feeling that we had it after those Baker games.
"I was kind of nervous at first, but then I remembered the coach kept saying to act like it's just a practice, it's not that big of a deal. I went out and did what I could; I did my job."
Kearsley coach Robert Ploof knew all about Roof before she got to high school, because he is best friends with her father.
"I was thinking about retiring this year, because my daughter is gone, but I've got to stick around because his daughter is here," Ploof said. "It's just an incredible feeling; winning never gets old."
Hannah Ploof is the only member of the team to compete in the Finals during each of Kearsley's three straight MHSAA championships. Her 238 last year in the Finals carried the team. On Friday, she rolled well below her average of 220.
"It's a team thing," Ploof said. "My team had to hold me up; that's what they did. They did what they had to do."
In the Regional, Kearsley finished second behind only Mason. Mason finished 11th in qualifying, three places below a berth in the Quarterfinals.
"We had a really young team this year, but we did it," Ploof said. "We started out winning the conference. We got to Regionals and had a rough day there. We finished second, but we did it. I'm so proud of them."
Jackson hadn't reached the Final in an MHSAA bracketed sport since the 1980 girls basketball team lost 52-46 to Flint Northern in the Class A championship game. After reaching the Semifinals in 2014 and the Quarterfinals in 2015, the girls bowling team made it to the final by beating Charlotte by a 1,284 to 1,231 margin in the Semifinals.
"They're a great team," Jackson coach David Rodriguez said. "That's why they're three-peat champs. We gave it what we had. I think my girls ran out of gas. It was a great ride this season. I've got four coming back. I see they're only losing two, so we'll do it again next year."
Jackson's Joz Hunt had the best score of the final, rolling a 212 that included four straight strikes in frames six through nine. Callie Mollitor rolled 198, Kaylee Collier 164, Morgan Bradley 146 and Jamie Bleiler 129 for Jackson.
PHOTOS: (Top) Lansing Eastern’s boys bowling team. (Middle) Flint Kearsley’s girls bowling team. (Photos by Bill Khan.)
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.)