GREENFIELD — High school basketball tips off around Indiana this month and, despite a class basketball era decline in attendance, hardwood hoops remains the Hoosier state’s most popular sport.
The largest capacity high school athletic event crowd in Hancock County this month, however, might be the multi-team competition that took place at Strike Force Lanes in Greenfield last week.
That’s right — bowling has become a popular wintertime option for athletes who don’t possess the requisite jump shot, butterfly stroke or wrestling moves to sign up for a traditional high school sport.
“I know the first time I ever came to a (bowling) match, I couldn’t believe all the people and parents,” said New Palestine parent Nate Miller, whose children, juniors Konnor and Kramer, bowl for the Dragons. “The kids are just as excited as they are in basketball or any other sport, the parents are just as excited.
“There’s a lot more enthusiasm at the bowling lanes than you would think.”
Miller and his wife, Vickie, were part of an overflow crowd at Strike Force on Thursday as boys, girls and co-ed prep teams representing 10 Central Indiana schools took part in a match, part of a weekly series that rotates among Indianapolis-area bowling centers.
The Dragons’ co-ed team, which has existed for several years, and Greenfield-Central’s boys team, in its first year of existence, are part of the 346 squads from 200 schools statewide that compete under the Indiana High School Bowling banner in conjunction with the United States Bowling Congress.
In the IHSB’s inaugural campaign of 1999-2000, only 173 teams from 94 schools took part in the season, which runs from October through February.
“This is something we’ve talked about for a long time,” G-C sophomore bowler Eli Williams said of the Cougars’ new bowling unit. “I was pretty excited to hear we finally got a team.”
Much like high school golf or track and field, prep bowling is both an individual and team event. Players’ scores count toward team totals, but they’re also rewarded individually for outstanding performances.
Rachel Balakin, a former bowler for the Dragons and now their head coach, said bowling offers similar experiences to traditional school sports.
“It’s a lot of the same benefits, because we do sit here and cheer everyone on,” said Balakin, a 2007 New Palestine graduate. “It’s a lot of the team enthusiasm, but it also has an independent aspect to it because everyone’s responsible for their own games.”
More importantly, she added, belonging to the school bowling team is more structured than simply hitting the lanes in a typical Saturday morning league.
“Since we still have that association with the school, we hold the student-athletes academically responsible,” said Balakin, who coaches the Miller twins, Bridget Gruner, Garrett Brickens, Ashley Alyea, Sydney Larrabee, Kayla Miller and Taylor Miller. “They have to meet the same kind of classroom and behavior standards, just as if they were playing on the basketball team.
“Whereas if you’re just on a Sunday league, anybody can go and do that. Here, they’ve got to do that balancing act still.”
The key difference between high school bowling and baseball, for example, is that bowling is not sanctioned by the Indiana High School Athletic Association. Bowling remains a club sport at Greenfield-Central, New Palestine, Knightstown, Southport, Franklin, Greenwood, Shelbyville and a host of other nearby schools.
IHSAA by-laws require that any new sport be offered by at least 50 percent of its member schools. Currently, 409 schools belong to the state’s athletic association, leaving bowling just a handful of schools away from being eligible to apply for IHSAA endorsement.
The IHSAA has indicated in the past that it would be happy to consider sanctioning the sport. A request would first have to be made by a member school principal, after the 50 percent threshold is met.
“I think bowling should be (an IHSAA sport),” 1994 G-C grad and current Cougars coach Brian Petrey said. “Collegiately, they fought this hardcore with making it a NCAA sport. When I was in college, they were going through the same thing they are now 20 years later in high school.”
Petrey landed a spot on the Indiana State bowling squad, but it wasn’t until 2004, several years after Petrey left college, that the NCAA sanctioned the first Division I bowling championship.
Soccer was the last team sport added by the IHSAA, in 1994, and Petrey expects bowling to eventually follow suit.
“It’s the same hurdles soccer was going through probably 20-30 years ago,” he said. “Maybe one day when there gets to be just a little bit more of a call out for it, I could see it happening.”
One of the key challenges for current school club bowlers such as those at G-C and New Palestine if the IHSAA were to sanction the sport would be in-season restrictions. Currently, prep bowlers can bowl in as many non-high school leagues in the winter as they wish. But, just as basketball players can only compete in high school events during the season, IHSAA bowlers would have to drop their recreational league activities.
Either way, the Hancock County bowlers are enjoying representing their schools. Petrey, whose team includes Williams, Garrett Hensley, Ryan Hubert, Draven Stafford, Thomas Visnack and Garrett Harsh, said his student-athlete strike kings enjoy the chance to face other schools.
“Their Saturday morning leagues, it’s a little bit more for fun,” the coach said. “This gives them a little bit more of the competitiveness. It gives them a taste of what other high schoolers do, whether it be basketball, football, the other major sports.
“When it’s high school, there’s high school pride on the line. We’ve got a little bit of a rivalry going with New Pal. A little bit of junk talking (laughs).”
Williams, the G-C sophomore who carries a 175 average, added that it’s during the high school competitions that he bears down.
“That’s when I’m the most serious, just because there are a lot of scholarship tournaments that come by,” he said. “The better bowler you are, the better chance you have of getting scholarships.”
With two years remaining to add to the total, Williams said he has already accumulated a few hundred dollars worth of college scholarship funds.
Williams, his Greenfield-Central teammates and New Palestine competitors can also earn official varsity letters to add to their school jackets for participating in the bowling club.
The letters are well-earned, the bowlers contend. After all, if bowling was easy, everyone would be rolling 300s. Season averages of the prep bowlers who competed last week at Strike Force ranged from the 120 range to above 200.
Franklin Central’s Cody Niblock recorded a 300 during Thursday’s action.
“It’s more of a skill sport,” Petrey said. “You have to be athletic as far as hand-eye coordination, balance. I tell the kids, ‘It’s all about geometry.’ It’s all about angles and working that part of it, hitting your marks.”
And that, Petrey noted, can be just as difficult as sinking a free throw.
“Bowling is a way for kids to be athletic in their own way,” he said. “You don’t have to run the fastest, hit the hardest or shoot a basketball. But, you can go out and excel, be competitive, have some fun and make new friends.
“I think that’s always good for everybody.”
For more information on high school bowling, contact Strike Force Lanes at (317) 477-2695 or visit www.ihsb.org.