Fledgling West Fargo High School bowling team flies under the radar
The team of student athletes practices several times a week. Individuals concentrate on timing and technique. Their coach keeps a watchful eye, sharing insight from years of experience when necessary, and dispersing praise when able.
During meets, the atmosphere is electric; the participants, intense. Fans cheer a good round and hush as players take form, steady their gaze and focus on knocking down the 10 pins at the end of the lane...
Wait, what did you think this was: football?
It wouldn't surprise the members of the West Fargo High School bowling team if you did. They're used to flying low on the athletic radar. In fact, ask any student body individual about bowling and you'll likely get the same reaction: "We have a bowling team?"
In fairness, the team only has been together for three years and bowling isn't technically even a high school sport, yet. Instead it is considered a club sport, much like girls softball used to be before becoming sanctioned last season.
So why do these 17 West Fargo High School boys and girls bowl if they receive little recognition from their pears and just as little notice from the surrounding community?
"Because it's fun," they said in unison, during a recent bowling practice at Stars and Strikes in West Fargo.
Paul Hirchert has been coaching West Fargo for the past two years. In the short time since the team's inception, he has seen positive growth.
"It started with about 10 kids three years ago," he said. "Last year (when I became coach) we had 12. This year, there are seven on varsity and eight on junior varsity."
West Fargo High School Activites Director Curt Jones noted that the bowling team is only affiliated with the school based on its name, nothing more. He said some students initially came forward asking to use the high school name because it was required for the team to participate in tournaments. The school obliged and the name stuck, however, the team does not receive any funding from the school.
Hirchert said growth for the sport is important, especially if there is any chance of bowling someday becoming sanctioned as a high school sport.
"For this to go (through sanctioning), more schools have to participate," he said. "There's no doubt about it."
The West Fargo High School team also has an assistant coach in Cindi Remmen, who primarily helps coach junior varsity.
"She's been a huge help," Hirchert said.
Breaking down the game
Getting bowling sanctioned as a high school sport would mean athletes could earn a varsity letter, something these young men and women feel strongly about.
The two ringers for the West Fargo team are seniors Nathan Thosen and Michael Olson. Both have bowled for just one year, but quickly stuck out as strong leaders and, as such, feel it would be nice to be recognized for their achievements on a varsity level.
The strongest bowlers on a team usually are placed in key spots in the lineup. High school bowling works on what is known as the Baker System, which pits five athletes from each team against each other. They bowl as a team, however, as each participant bowls two to three frames per match. There are three matches per game, winner taking best of five.
Olson is known as a closer, which means he has the tough task of following the rest of his team. That could involve cleaning up spares or trying to rack up a turkey during the final frame.
It's a system that works, but is challenging to master.
"It's hard to keep the line between each game," Thosen said.
Olson agreed: "It's tough to keep your momentum since you have so much time between frames."
Hirchert noted that, though it is a team sport, each player is trying to do his best for another reason.
"During the season, each player's frames are being documented," he said. "At the end of the year, all strikes, spares and zeros are tallied. They then are ranked and the best overall players are honored."
Getting schools to participate has been the biggest struggle for high school bowling clubs. There actually are fewer schools with bowling teams this year than last year.
Much like with other high school sports, North Dakota is broken up into two regions: an East and a West. Last year there were approximately five West Region teams and seven East Region teams. Now only Dickinson, Williston and Minot comprise the West Region. In the East there still are six teams: Griggs County Central, Oakes, Fargo South, Fargo North, West Fargo and Moorhead. Wahpeton had to drop its program after its coach moved and most of its team either quit or graduated.
According to Bob Strack, Executive Director of the North Dakota Bowling Proprietors Association, there may be another reason as to why the fledgling high school bowling program has seen early struggles.
"Everyone sort of fails to realize we're a rural state," he said. "There is mileage involved."
Other than the local Fargo-Moorhead teams, West Fargo's closest competition is Griggs County Central, which is located approximately 95 miles away in Cooperstown, N.D. The other East Region team, Oakes, is roughly 113 miles from West Fargo.
Jones noted that working with bowling proprietors would be logistically difficult, in some respects, if the sport was to be sanctioned.
"The problem with some bowling alleys is there is alcohol," he said. "There would have to be a lot of talk between the school and owners before sanctioning could go anywhere."
Schools are reliant on local establishments to serve as host sites for meets and practices, Jones said. Therefore, alcohol aside, there still is the issue of paying for use of the lanes.
Luckily for the West Fargo team, Stars and Strikes has been more than accommodating. Owner Julie Wells lets team members bowl for free during certain days of the week. All she asks in return is they help clean up once in a while.
Strack said the bowling program began after he was approached by national and Minnesota organizations to start a high school club in North Dakota.
Now, it might just be a matter of time until more schools jump on board.
"The biggest thing is get the word out, get them bowling," Strack said. "Once we get (the program) off the ground on a respectable basis, it will grow by itself."