Jeff Wheeler said he has a “built-in best friend for life” in his twin brother, James.
At the urging of their mother a decade ago, they learned how to bowl. They endured unspeakable loss in 2018 when Melissa Wheeler died of cancer. And they persevered through a challenging six months in 2020 when Jeff developed and beat stage 4 Burkitt lymphoma.
On Friday, for their mother, they celebrated and cried together after leading Lansing Catholic to the Division 3 boys bowling Finals championship at Jax 60 in thrilling fashion.
After staking a 39-pin lead after two Baker games against Ogemaw Heights in the Final, the Cougars shook off a sluggish start to the team game just in time to snatch away the championship by a 1,239-1,216 margin.
“We’ve been through a lot in our life, a lot of rough times and we just always try to get through it, so doing this just means the entire world to us,” James Wheeler said. “It feels great.”
The senior twin brothers provided huge strikes when Lansing Catholic needed them most, which proved to be in the 10th frame of the championship. Trailing by about 80 pins entering the final frame, James Wheeler and Jeff Wheeler both doubled, Jeff’s first strike sealing the title and sending the Cougars faithful into a frenzy.
“I knew I needed the first shot just to get me hype and the team hype,” Jeff Wheeler said. “Our mom got us into it, and we finished our senior year strong. We did it for Mom.”
Jeff Wheeler’s 199 game with seven strikes led all scorers in the final game. After five opens in the first seven frames, James Wheeler changed balls and threw four straight strikes for 164. Charlie Gates delivered 179, Ethan Wolcott struck out in the 10th for 171 and Jack Hernly’s 158 rounded out the Cougars in the final.
Danny Gassman had 198 and Derek Malone 197 for Ogemaw Heights. Colin Matheson shot 178.
Cougars coach Doug Moore lauded his team’s resilience after it missed qualifying for the Finals last year by seven pins. They advanced out of their Regional by four pins last weekend and took advantage of the opportunity by qualifying third for Friday’s match play. They won their quarterfinal handily over Yale, and then squeaked out a 23-pin victory over 2022 champion Gladwin in the semifinal.
“All day we just said, ‘This is our time,’” Moore said. “Don’t worry about them, just bowl one frame at a time and do your game. This is awesome. I think we’re all going to start bawling.”
Ogemaw Heights qualified fifth, beat Napoleon in the quarterfinals and topped eighth-seeded Chesaning in the semifinals. Chesaning pulled off the upset of the day by ousting top seed and 2021 champion Armada in the quarterfinals by 15.
On the girls side, Flint Powers Catholic earned a narrow but fulfilling victory over Ishpeming Westwood, 1,024-1,007. Junior Elizabeth Teuber delivered a clutch strike in the ninth frame of the team game to complete a three-bagger.
Four years ago, the Chargers’ lineup was only four strong — and current seniors Lauren Harrold, Libby Hagan and Olivia Tremaine were three of them. Two years ago they added Teuber and Lillee-Ann Jacobs as freshmen, and the seeds for success were planted.
That’s only partially true, actually. Coach Matthew Wheeler, a graduate of high school bowling powerhouse Flint Kearsley, cultivated those seeds when he took over at Powers five years ago.
“Everything I learned about coaching, I learned from (Kearsley coach) Rob Ploof, who calls himself the Bill Belichick of high school bowling, and I don’t argue that point at all,” Wheeler said. “My aspiration was to build a program behind his theories and drive, and it’s nice to see it rewarded. These girls worked hard.”
Flint Powers reached the Finals last year, bowing out in the semifinals. They qualified fifth this year, defeated Midland Bullock Creek in the quarterfinals, 1,024-906, and earned a spot in the championship by beating top seed Napoleon, 1,176-1,115.
In the championship, Ishpeming took a 13-pin lead after the Baker games but had no answer for Teuber, who shot 221. Jacobs added 164 and Harrold had 147.
For Teuber, it was another highlight in a bowling career already full of them. She won the Division 3 Singles Final as a freshman and was runner-up last year. She will compete for another individual title Saturday after winning her Regional, but this team title was something special.
“This is what I’ve always wanted for my team, and now that we have it, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “With my win freshman year, I didn’t understand it. Now that I’m a junior and I understand how big a deal it is, it is incredible that they get to experience it, too.”
Kylie Junak shot 188 and Elise Ketola had 175 for Westwood, which earned the second seed in qualifying. The Patriots defeated Boyne City and Shepherd to reach the championship.
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.)