As fall sports playoffs commenced, Traverse City Christian was seeking its first ever MHSAA Finals championship in a girls sport.
Then the Sabres’ volleyball team reached the Regional Finals, and thoughts of a state title were on the school’s collective mind.
But those hopes ended at the hands of Leland.
If you’re one of the Sabres, that’s bad.
Yes, but winter sports were on the horizon and girls and boys Regional bowling titles had been numerous in years past. And the girls team graduated only one member of the 2020 team that reached the Division 4 semifinals and fell 10 pins shy of the championship match.
Suddenly winter sports hit the pause button.
That was bad, and frankly sad for many student-athletes.
In February, the pause button was released and the Sabres bowling teams were ready again to pursue Division 4 titles.
Fast forward a bit and the girls managed to let the Regional title slip out of their hands, 52 pins short of champion Ishpeming Westwood. They lost a 90-pin lead in the final game.
Oh, supporters and the girls would agree that’s bad.
Not really, as the Sabres’ runner-up finish qualified them for the Finals.
That’s good, right?
Indeed! They topped Ishpeming in a semifinals rematch on their way to claiming the first girls sport Finals championship in the school’s history.
“We thought we were going to win one (Regional) this year,” said Brent Wheat, one of the Sabres’ three girls and boys bowling coaches and the school’s baseball coach. “We were in the lead (at the girls Regional) and the individual mental side of things kind of took over that last game and got in their head a little bit, and it impacted the outcome for the team in the end.
“We gave up the lead, and I think that was a big growing lesson for them, and it was a lesson the coaches really hammered in that next week before the state finals.”
Kaia Bebe, Rebekah Burch, Hannah Elenbaas, Brooke Smith, Eva Wendel and Ella Wendel were the comprised the history-making team. Along with Wheat, coaches Andy Radtke and Judy Radtke are also in the history books.
TC Christian’s boys bowlers did win their Regional and nearly upset top-seeded and eventual Finals champion St. Charles in the opening round of that tournament’s match play, coming up 21 pins shy of the victory. The Sabres’ Hunter Haldaman, Jeremy Hansen and Ella Wendel also competed in the next day’s Singles Finals, with Wendell finishing runner-up and Haldeman reaching the semifinals as both made the all-state first team.
“It was quite a year for TCCS bowling – two conference titles, a Regional boys title and a girls state championship,” noted coach Andy Radtke. “It's shown them what hard work, teamwork, and a never-give-up attitude can accomplish.”
The girls team’s character is what impresses their coaches the most.
“They encourage each other, and they are respectful to their coaches and opponents,” shared coach Judy Radtke, who also teaches at TC Christian. “It was wonderful for me to have several coaches from other teams at the Finals tell me how much they enjoyed bowling with our girls and how nice they were.
“As coaches, we seek to use bowling to help build character in our players, and I'm thankful they were able to demonstrate that on such a big stage.”
The three coaches, who are all related, aren’t really surprised the girls became Finals champions in less than 10 years of competing.
“Andy, my father-in-law, and I talked about it after we won,” Wheat said. “We used to go down there (to the Finals) and look at these teams and go ‘Man, I wonder what that feels like to be that team that wins.
“‘I wonder what it feels like to have that program that can compete at that level,’ and all of sudden we’re sitting in that position,” he continued. “It is hard to process.”
Mounting successes are what Andy Radtke points to for the real lack of surprise. Traverse City Christian’s girls had won Regional championships three of the last four seasons entering this one.
“I’m very pleased, but not surprised,” he said. “During the 2019-20 season they were conference and Regional champions.
“They also did very well at states – finally losing in the semifinals in a very close match,” he continued. “I’m convinced that experience served as a springboard to this year winning the championship.”
Christian’s small enrollment, fewer than 75 students in the high school, is a source of pride for Judy Radtke.
“To be able to successfully compete against schools that are significantly larger than ours feels really good,” she said. “Our school has had several girls teams, in all sports, do well in postseason play.
“Being able to be the first team to win that Finals trophy is incredibly exciting.”
Wheat believes the lessons learned in the second-place Regional finish led to tremendous growth.
“They really buckled down and performed above their years from what we have seen mentally,” he said. “They seemed much more grown up in their competing.
“Being able to control the mental side of it at that level is the difference in champions versus just coming up a bit short,” he explained. “They were able to work through it largely from what had happened the week before.”
The Division 4 Finals title has the school’s athletic director Micah Gallegos beaming with pride for both the girls and boys bowling teams.
“We have great kids who work really hard to develop themselves and their game,” he said. “It is evident that we have created a recipe for success.”
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@example.com 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) Traverse City Christian’s Ella Wendel finds her shot this season. (Middle) Hannah Elenbaas, with the Sabres’ Adam Rasmussen to her left, sends a shot rolling. (Below) Traverse City Christian celebrates its championship March 26 at Canton’s Super Bowl. (Photos courtesy of the Traverse City Christian bowling program.)
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.)