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 [email protected] 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.)
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.)