Girls bowling teams in the Flint area do not need to drive far to find high-level competition.
A 28-mile route can be taken from reigning Division 3 champion Birch Run – just north of the Saginaw/Genesee county line – to Division 1 champion Davison. And along the way, one can see 2016-17 Division 2 champion Flint Kearsley out the window.
It’s quite a consolidation of power in a single sport, but one that shouldn’t be too surprising to those who follow bowling.
“Whenever you think of bowling alleys,” Birch Run coach Teddy Villarreal said, “you think of either the Flint area or Detroit.”
The majority of girls bowling teams in the state will spend their seasons chasing these three teams. Some – including Birch Run, which claimed its first MHSAA title last winter – have been doing that with Kearsley and Davison for years.
“Whenever you go to a tournament and you hear Kearsley and Davison – remember when (Michael) Jordan was playing basketball? That is what it’s like whenever you’re facing Kearsley and facing Davison,” Villarreal said.
The Kearsley and Davison bowling rivalry is a friendly one.
The two schools are about 10 miles apart. Rob Ploof, who coaches both the Kearlsey boys and girls, and Davison boys coach Bob Tubbs stood in each other’s weddings as the best man.
Their girls teams have mirrored each other in recent years, each having won five of the past six MHSAA titles in their respective divisions. Since the frequent meetings between former Big Nine Conference foes now happen in nonconference tournaments, they serve mostly to benefit both teams in a competitive sense.
“We see them at a lot of tournaments, and we’re kind of close to their team, I would say,” Kearsley senior Barbara Hawes said. “We’re rivals, but I feel like it’s just a friendly competition, and it’s competition that makes us better because our scores are so close and we have the same end goal.”
They weren’t always the teams being chased, of course. Early in his tenure, Ploof made a point to seek out Sterling Heights Stevenson, which was a state power in the mid-to-late 2000s.
“When I started my first year of coaching, Sterling Heights Stevenson had won a state title, so I wanted to find out who the coach was and ask him how he did it,” Ploof said. “He said, ‘Get your kids into tournaments, and get them good competition.’ I said, ‘Which tournaments are you guys in, because I’m going to those ones.’”
The Kearsley and Davison girls each reached the pinnacle in 2012, claiming their first MHSAA Finals titles and starting their current runs of dominance.
While seeking out top-notch competition has been a big part of the rise of both programs, perhaps the biggest has been the youth bowling scene in the Flint area, which Ploof said is tremendous. He credits a lot of that to Jim Teuber, the owner of Richfield Bowl, which serves as Kearsley’s home venue. Ploof said Teuber runs a youth program that busses about 150 kids to the bowling alley to learn the game at a young age.
Middle school programs in the area also seeing high turnout, which feeds into the high schools.
“The whole Flint area is kind of on board with that,” Ploof said. “Last year, we had 50 teams in our program -- Kearsley had six, Davison had five, Grand Blanc has six teams -- that definitely makes bowling for kids in our area better. That’s why you’re seeing the success from our area; it’s starting with the middle school kids.”
Competing for Kearsley is something bowlers look forward to from an early age. This season, 22 girls tried out for the team, allowing Ploof to field multiple junior varsity squads.
“I think that it’s what everyone aspires to get to throughout their years,” Hawes said. “We have a lot of youth programs, and most of the kids that work at the bowling alley are the high school bowlers who are like coaches. In our bowling alley, we have the mini state title trophies, and we have our banners up, so they see those things at a young age.”
While the bowlers at Birch Run don’t aspire to be members of the Kearsley team, they have been looking to get to that level. There’s still a ways to go to achieve that type of sustained success, but the Panthers feel they’re at least on the right path.
“The bowling teams before us (at Birch Run) were pretty good, and definitely set high standards,” Birch Run junior Madison Hoffman said. “I think we’ve definitely improved, and you could say we definitely achieved a lot of our goals, and we really set the standards higher.”
Hoffman added that she and her teammates believe they can compete now when they see Kearsley or Davison in a tournament, which is a big step forward.
It’s something Hawes and her Kearsley teammates welcome.
“I think it’s really cool to see how teams are looking up to us, because we’ve worked so hard to get to this point,” Hawes said. “It’s really cool to see people trying to compete at a higher level.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Flint Kearsley girls bowling team hoists its Division 2 championship trophy last season. (Middle) Birch Run’s girls celebrated their first MHSAA Finals title last winter. (Below) Like Kearsley, Davison has built a string of successful finishes in Division 1. (Davison and Kearsley photos courtesy of those schools’ bowling programs; Birch Run’s photo courtesy of Teddy Villarreal.)
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.)