Bowling rolls into high schools

Ben Feller
December 29, 2005

It's practice time, but the high school students vying for a spot on the varsity squad aren't at the gym. The action is down at the Bowl-O-Rama.

The boys and girls from Twin Valley High School in southeastern Pennsylvania set up at their usual lanes, surrounded by teams from rival schools. This is a family bowling center, but the students have taken it over, scattering the pins in a series of loud, clattering crashes.

"I'll be doing this the rest of my life," said Lindsey Bitler, 16, co-captain of the girls team at Twin Valley, after nailing a strike. "I love it that much."

Bowling is hot in high schools, belying its stereotype as a pastime of beer leagues and smoky alleys. In fact, for boys and girls, no varsity sport is growing faster. Bowling posted the most gains in 2004-05, in both the number of players and the number of schools adding teams, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Football remains the king of sports among boys, with more than 1 million high school players. For girls, the top sport is basketball, with more than 450,000 joining each season. By comparison, bowling has just under 40,000 boys and girls combined.

Yet 16 states now recognize bowling as a varsity sport, a fourfold increase since 1999. And most other states have club-level bowling or plan to start bowling soon. Washington state recognizes bowling as a varsity sport for girls and a club sport for boys, according to the High School Bowling USA Web site.

"It's a big deal in these schools," said Sue Hinrichsen, assistant executive director of the Illinois High School Association. "It's just as big as other sports. I've draped enough medals around these kids to see the emotion, to see the impact it really has for kids to achieve their goals."

Beyond becoming more accessible, bowling is growing more acceptable — even cool.

The bowling industry made a strategic decision to expand high-school interest, pooling its time and money to help schools launch intramural programs. Bowling centers, meanwhile, have added teen-friendly events such as glow-in-the-dark bowling and dance-club environments.

And to foster interest among younger students, the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America offers gym teachers in-school bowling kits with plastic balls, pins and 20-foot long carpets that have arrows for aiming points, just like real lanes.

To change the image of the sport, bowling operators are tinkering with their terminology. Most don't run bowling "alleys" anymore. Owners think "centers" or "houses" sound nicer.

"Bowling has traditionally been centered around leagues, and they're going by the wayside," said Pam Long, youth director for the proprietors' association. "So proprietors are starting to see that if they don't do something there, their bowlers are going to leave them."

Most high-school bowlers don't compete in other sports, which is another reason for its growing popularity, said Jeanne Klescewski, director of high school and collegiate efforts at the U.S. Bowling Congress.

"You don't have to be one of the elite bowling athletes to make the high school team," she said. "It's a sport in which it's easier to develop. You may not have the height for basketball. You may not have the solid build for football. But bowling is a brain game."

Most bowlers scoff at the notion that their sport is not demanding. Just ask Nikki Formica, a first-year member of her school's bowling team, about what goes through her mind when she looks down the alley.

"Your feet have to be in the right spot. You have to take the right amount of steps. Your arm has to go up at the exact right time. You have to bend a certain amount. But you can't think about any of that," she warns. "You just have to think about your mark. That's what I'm working on."

Like most athletes who earn varsity letters, bowlers don't just want to play. They want to win. And, like in so many sports, students looking for an edge can spend hundreds of dollars on gear.

At Twin Valley, it's not unusual for competitive bowlers to own at least three bowling balls for different shots — one for straight shots, one that has a heavy hook and one that doesn't hook as much if lanes are more dry than oily. Students use wheeled luggage to haul these balls to competitions, looking like a pack of travelers heading to the airport.

And shoes. Loaner pairs are available at bowling centers, but serious competitors buy their own, with changeable heels and soles for varying lane conditions.


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