WATERFORD – The journey began a long time ago for the Flint Kearsley girls bowling team.
Nearly 10 years for some of the team’s seniors.
It didn’t begin when they entered high school four years ago. It began with a bus ride from Dowdall Elementary School to Richfield Bowl back in the second grade.
“I definitely started bowling for Kearsley when I was at Dowdall, in second grade,” senior Allison Robbins said. “It was fun. And now it’s my last year (at Kearsley) and it’s going to be hard to leave.”
Richfield offers an after-school bowling program for the Dowdall students. It busses the kids over to the bowling alley and offers the future Hornets a chance to get a head start on the competition. And it definitely has paid off.
Kearsley topped the competition at the Division 2 Finals on Friday at Century Lanes in Waterford, defeating reigning champion Mason, 1,186-1,166, in the title-clinching match. It was the school’s eighth Finals championship since 2012.
“We have the after-school program and a middle school program,” first-year head coach Kevin Shute said. “It really gets the ball rolling. By the time they’re freshmen, they’ve got years of bowling under their belt. They already know what they’re doing. It’s just a matter of going out and executing.”
Shute’s team executed from start to finish Friday afternoon. The Hornets were the top-seeded team out of block qualifying, shooting a 3,440, nearly 300 pins better than second-seeded Mason. They defeated Bay City Western in the round of eight before knocking off St. Clair Shores Lake Shore in the semifinals, 1,321-1,065.
Kearsley led Mason by 55 pins after the two Baker games and rolled a clean first frame (five strikes) to get off to a good start in the regular games. Seniors Megan Timm and Emilea Sturk rolled games of 190 and 188 to help their team hold on for the victory.
“It feels really good, especially beating the team that knocked us out last year,” Robbins said, wiping away tears after winning her third Finals team title in four years. “It’s great to be able to get that redemption and show that we are better bowlers than we were that day.”
Despite trailing after the Baker games, Mason did not give up. The Bulldogs collected marks in their first eight frames of the individual game and were within striking range entering the 10th frame. The 2020 champions were led by senior Grace Ann Whipple, who shot a 237 to lead all bowlers in the championship match.
Mason shot a 3,160 in qualifying and defeated Melvindale and Whitehall en route to the final.
Kearsley will graduate five seniors, all of whom will be bowling in college. Allison Eible will be bowling at Valparaiso University, Rhyan Langdon-Yaklin at Cleary University, Robbins at Tusculum University, Sturk at Florida A&M University and Timm at Trine University.
On the boys side, Dearborn Divine Child rallied past Chelsea to claim its first-ever MHSAA Finals championship. Entering match play as the 3-seed, the Falcons defeated sixth-seeded Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills by 28 pins in the round of eight, then edged out second-seeded Tecumseh by just three pins, 1,385-1,382, in the semifinals.
At that point coach Nick Ploucha’s team was staring at a matchup against fourth-seeded Chelsea, which was fresh off an upset win over top-seeded and reigning champion Jackson Northwest.
The Bulldogs rolled Baker games of 220 and 190 to take a 74-pin lead over Divine Child into the regular games.
“There are a lot of teams that scream and yell, hoot and holler, and we just kind of wait our turn,” Ploucha said. “We knew we were 74 pins down but we were patient and we began chipping away at the lead. The kids were dynamite. You could feel them start to move the locomotive, a little bit every frame, and they finished it.”
Sophomore Andrew Carl bowled a 231 to lead the comeback, while junior Paul Scheuher and senior Noelle Jackson rolled games of 226 and 210 as the Falcons shot a team score of 1,022. Seniors Adam Thompson and Shane Green shot 181 and 174 in their team’s win.
Divine Child shot 3,545 in qualifying play, while Chelsea shot 3,442.
Just six years ago, Ploucha inherited a team that was returning zero bowlers.
“We’ve told the kids over the years to continue to be patient,” Ploucha said. “Last year, we wanted to just make it to the state Finals. We tried to have a good time this year, we wanted to qualify (for match play). Once we qualified, we just said, ‘Let’s see where this takes us.’ ”
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.)