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Thursday, April 4, 2013

The first state bowling experience -- in an A.C. casino

Some combinations sound wonderful in the beginning. Whoever thought that soup-and-salad package at Panera's was going to take off? And whoever concocted chocolate, toasted marshmallows and graham crackers around campfires -- kudos!

Those are wonderful combinations from a food standpoint. But what about having the state high school bowling championships in an Atlantic City casino? Maaaaaaah-valous!!

Well, that's how I felt as I lobbied for covering the 1988 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association boys bowling championship, which this particular year was being held at the Showboat Hotel Casino. Now, I admit that my wanting to cover the state bowling championship was for selfish reasons. Part of it was the fact that I had covered the sport for the Observer for four seasons, yet I had never covered a live event involving the sport. I knew how the sport worked and I knew the object of it was that the person or the team with the most pins knocked down would win.

To this day, I'm still not sure why I didn't get to cover any bowling up until then considering we had reams of space and pages back in the mid-1980s. And in all honestly, I wasn't really trying hard to cover the sport, but when it came to a state championship event, I wanted to at least be there! In 1987, Toms River North's boys, led by the dynamic duo of senior Steve Spector and junior Jay Stanton helped lead the Mariners to the state team title. And Southern Regional High senior Debbie Freeman won the state girls individual championship.

And I missed that. This time around, I wasn't going to miss something very big.

To set the stage for the 1987-88 bowling season, here's what you need to know: Brick High's dynamic duo of Kevin Musakiewicz and Gabe Kamphausen were lighting up the alleys at Ocean Lanes in Lakewood, where the Southern Division was bowled on a regular season basis. But then enter two young men who would change the way things went that year. There was Stanton, who was now the senior leader for North and he led the league with a gaudy 220 per match average -- which for an 18-year-old was pretty freakin' insane. I'm like, "A 220?! Reaaaaaally?" I like bowling, too, but I'd be lucky if I got 220 together for two games, let alone one.

All season, Stanton was fighting it out for the top average of the league with Toms River East junior sensation Shawn McCloud, whose father, Keith, I knew as the former boys cross country coach and now assistant principal at Toms River North. During the 1987-88 season, McCloud made history by rolling the first 300 game in county high school competition.

All I know was the numbers I kept getting from the alleys every Wednesday were making my head spin. And, yes, I, at one point, started to accuse these young men putting up the pretty steep numbers of being one-alley wonders -- in other words, I didn't think they were going to be successful once postseason tournaments began in other houses.

And I took a crap-load of flak for it, too. How dare I even believe that?!

But North was the defending state champion and they qualified in the top three teams at the South Jersey championships in Cherry Hill to advance to the 1988 state meet. And so did the two top guys in the division individually, McCloud and Stanton. And Brick High's boys were going to the state meet, too. Brick High's girls were going, as was the Lakewood High girls.

This 1988 state bowling championship event was one I had to be at. No questions asked! I needed to take a trip down the Garden State Parkway to Exit 38-A, then onto the Expressway until getting to A.C. This was also going to be the first time I was in Atlantic City since former Governor Brendan T. Byrne signed the law in 1978 allowing casinos in the city. The last time I had been in A.C. was in November 1975, over 2 1/2 years from when casinos became an everyday way of life. I was 9 years old and I went with my dad, mom and sister to a city that was totally different than what I was about to go to on this Saturday afternoon, March 13, 1988.

In 1975, Atlantic City had its boardwalk and it was just so serene. It was a quiet, large town that had no inkling that gambling and entertainment were about to overtake it and make it into this bustling city that even the makers of Monopoly never dreamed would happen.

But I also had a guy who was pretty positive as North's coach. Frank Hughes had taken over the reins as North's coach after the friendly Martin Greenfield had retired with his last hurrah being that state championship. And North had a great season, challenging for the division title. North ended up surprising the field that year and winning it over Brick, Brick Memorial, Lakewood and East. Hughes was also Toms River North's band director and one of the most popular teachers in the building. His enthusiasm for the boys bowling team he coached may not have matched that of the band he directed, but it was sure as heck a close second.

It was that enthusiasm and his saying, "Yeah, you ought to come down for this," that sealed the deal for me to go to A.C. on that beautiful March afternoon with temperatures in the low 50s.

When I got off the Parkway and off the Expressway and landed on the main strip of A.C., I had this "I believe were no longer in Kansas" feel. Thank goodness there were signs all over the place to direct me to where the Showboat was. I remember turning onto the street of the Showboat and having to go into the parking garage which cost me $2 to park.

More signs greeted me as I got out of the lot and into the building, which immediately had that wretched cigarette smell to it considering you could light up anywhere back in 1988. All I cared about as I passed by a casino in the building was where the bowling alleys were located. And they were located in an upstairs part of the building. So through the use of an escalator, I found myself on the floor of the bowling alley.

This is to show you how stringent things were when it came to coverage of big events back in 1988 -- I walked into the bowling alley and no one even gave me a glance as to check for a press pass. So I did what I would go and do for the next 11 years when it came to covering bowling: I'd find one of the teams I covered and stand behind them watching the action.

Since I was new to this, I really wasn't sure what to expect or the enthusiasm level. And it just so happened I found Hughes and his North Mariners. They had just finished rolling the first game and it was a good score for North as it rolled a 796. But now as I watched North roll the second game, I can see a fluency and cohesiveness that I became used to while covering the sport. If one guy had a bad frame, the next guy would come along and pick him up. But in this game, the Mariners were scorching hot, rolling a 970 to pull into a first-place tie with Union High at 1,766. Linden was in third at 1,723.

North had bowled such a quick and dominant second game that it had time to relax before the third-game pairings were announced. I went over to watch other matches, but I could not help watching a young man who was the anchor bowler of one of the North Jersey teams. He was trying to master the lanes of the Showboat and in doing so, had gotten on a roll with this wicked hook he was throwing. Well, it was affecting his wrist so badly that he needed to ice it down as he held it like he had broken it.

What a terrible toll to pay for trying to be the best in this sport.

Some teams were still rolling, so I had a little time to kill and I decided to go to the closest casino in the building. I had some dollars that I turned into quarters and I was hitting the slot machines pretty good for the few dollars I had. I would win a few quarters here and there, but ultimately, all the quarters would go. This would last maybe 3-4 minutes. When I finally left to go back, no more than two slot machines away was one of the participants in the tournament. And behind me at another machine was a couple of more kids. And as I walked back to the bowling alley, I think I saw a couple of more kids.

It was there that it hit me -- this whole concept of bowling a state championship in a casino was a bad, bad idea. These kids couldn't play any of the gambling games because of their age. Yes, a bad, bad idea.

The third game was about to take place and North was put up against, no kidding, the other first-place team in the house in Union. This was mano-a-mano bowling. And North was up to the task. The Mariners, led by Stanton, were having a big third game. The Farmers -- yes, that's Union's nickname believe it or not -- would continue to stay near North as the later frames were approaching. North ended up winning this game with Union by bowling an equally gaudy 915. Union ended up at 898, which  meant North had a 17-pin lead, holding a 2,681 pinfall.

This should have been enough to win a state title and make history for North that afternoon less than four months after I covered North's field hockey team winning the NJSIAA Group IV championship on a chilly early evening at Trenton State College.

But as North and Union were finishing up at one end of the house, I started hearing loud roars from the other side. It could have been a girls team going crazy -- those high-pitched girls could practically scream in cheers of joy. But a moment or two later, a North parent came over to where the Mariner boys were finishing up their third-game win against Union.

"It's Linden," he said. "They're just connecting."

And they were. I scooted over from where North and Union were to see how Linden was going. Linden's Tigers were connecting in unison like five competing members of the Pro Bowlers Tour. One strike after another, right down the frame line. At one point, I think I counted seven consecutive strikes. It got down to the 10th frame. Linden was not backing down. It became near the very end of that frame the Tigers were going to overtake North and win the title.

And Linden did. In the end, and thanks to anchor bowler Jim Heimall's top game of the day at 289, the Tigers finished with a 2,713 series, rolling an insane 990 in the last game to be 32 pins better than North, which had to settle for second after winning the state title the year before. Heartbreaking, yes, considering the number of open frames North left late in the third game. The Mariners paid for it.

But while North's bowling team could not join its field hockey girls for state championship success that year, Stanton was able to join gymnast Janice Rogers as a Marinerz individual state champion. Stanton finished with a three-game ledger of 671 and capped one of the greatest scholastic bowling seasons I ever witnessed -- a 220 season average topped off by a state championship 671 in which he was practically true to his average -- 223.7 per game.

I ate crow. And I didn't mind for one moment doing that for Jay Stanton was one of the truly fine young men I came across in my career. Like Janice Rogers, Stanton was heading to Penn State University where he told me the school had a bowling team.

McCloud also proved his numbers weren't just juiced on a home alley in Lakewood. He finished in a not-too-shabby fifth individually with a 608. He, like Stanton, was just a class act in how he handled himself. I knew the sport was in good hands with McCloud, Musakiewicz, Kamphausen and other talents returning for the 1988-89 season.

The girls' championship saw Middletown North's Kelly Winters win with a 565 series individually and Edison High win its third straight team title with a 2,455 series, beating out Gloucester Catholic and Woodbridge for the crown. But Brick was right there in fourth place with a 2,340 series. Lakewood's girls were in ninth at 2,234. Individually, Debbie Matonis, who like Stanton was a North senior, was the top girl from Ocean County, placing sixth with a 540 series. Brick's Dawn Hawk finished eighth and Lakewood's Addie Dix, who as a sophomore would win the state title the next year, was 20th.

As for the state meet itself, this tournament ... as I figured it would be ... was one and done in the world's largest playground by the Shore. Too many complaints -- none by me, mind you -- dogged the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association and the next year, they moved the state meet to its longtime home of Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick, conveniently located off US-1. In 1991, I had the awkward position of covering the state meet at Carolier while stepping over some huge cable wires that ABC had put down to telecast the Johnny Petraglia Open, Pro Bowlers Tour event that same Saturday afternoon after the state high school championships had finished up.

Talk about uncomfortable.

And when it came time to pay the $2 ticket to park at the Showboat leaving, I pulled just exactly that out of my wallet ... two bucks. I had no money left. That will teach me to gamble while on the job! So for the next hour and change that late afternoon in March, I wound up having to go home via the Expressway, where I paid a quarter, which was all I had left, to get off at the exit where Route 9 was. And yes -- I took Route 9 aaaaaaaaaaaall the waaaaaaay back 45 miles, back into Toms River to the Observer building to write the story.

In one afternoon, I learned a lot about the competitive sport of bowling. Yes, high school bowling at its absolutely, exciting and competitive best. So inspired by covering it, I would go on and cover the state tournament every year through 1998 because we always had some individual or team up for a state championship. The state bowling championship is one of the best yearly events I've ever done in my nearly 29 years in this business.

Frank Hughes' enthusiasm sold me on the idea. Jay Stanton's performance that afternoon made me want to come back.

And my selfishness to want to go to Atlantic City certainly didn't hurt the cause either.

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