The NCAA women’s bowling championship is taking place in St. Louis this week, but Windy City aficionados of the sport could be forgiven if it seems to them like Saturday league at a suburban Brunswick Zone.
Chicago-area bowlers populate the rosters of five of the eight teams vying for the national title — evidence, some say, of the region’s pre-eminence as a production line for scholarship-worthy talent.
“Coaches have said Illinois is probably the No.1 spot,” said Marty Miller, a longtime coach in Aurora who has helped to develop dozens of college bowlers. “I’m just spitting out what they’ve said to me. I don’t know what it is about Illinois, particularly in this neck of the woods, but it’s a hot spot.”
Observers say the area’s multitude of serious youth leagues, strong high school teams and competitive tournaments have created a deep and bountiful pool for recruiters as more colleges add women’s bowling to their athletic lineups.
“A lot of kids are catching on that there’s opportunity in college to offset some of the cost,” said Jeff Bailey, manager of Joliet Town and Country Lanes. “Local talent is going to college and these younger kids are seeing they’re getting scholarship money. That’s the driving force.”
The NCAA sanctions only women’s bowling — men’s college teams and some women’s squads compete under the auspices of the United States Bowling Congress — and the sport has rapidly gained popularity since the first championship in 2004, going from 42 teams to 81.
St. Francis University in Pennsylvania formed its squad in 2010. Coach Tom Falbo has three Chicago-area women on his team, and said the region has been critical to the Red Flash making its first appearance at the championship.
“I would say Chicago, in my eyes, is the top,” he said. “There’s a lot of good coaching all over. There’s a good deal of professionals in the area and they give back. A lot of great centers cater to the youth. There’s just a large bed of talent.”
Former Illinois high school state champ Kyra Udziela, a St. Francis junior from Lemont, said many area families have deep connections to the sport, passing their affinity from one generation to the next.
But family bowling isn’t just fun time with parents and siblings, she said — kids who grow up like that want to win.
Such competitiveness helps produce college-level players by the score, something that’s evident when familiar faces pop up at event after event. Udziela, 20, recalled a recent competition in Nashville where at least a dozen Chicago-area bowlers crowded together for a photograph.
“You go to a tournament and everyone’s hugging each other,” she said. “It’s really heartwarming to see so many people you know.”
St. Francis’s first opponent Thursday was defending national champion McKendree University, a school in Illinois’ Metro East region outside St. Louis. It brought two Chicago-area bowlers to the championship, including Sarah Wille, 22, from Hoffman Estates.
She grew up bowling in a Mount Prospect youth league before joining the squad at Hoffman Estates High School. She also played volleyball in high school and had a few schools recruiting her to play that sport, she said, but ultimately decided bowling was a more comfortable fit.
“There are so many people who play volleyball and not as many bowlers,” she said. “It felt like the better path to take, and I’m glad I did. I never knew how competitive bowling could be until I got to college.”
The NCAA championships feature other Chicago-area products, including Jordan Newham, a graduate of Metea Valley in Aurora who plays at Vanderbilt, and Julia Bond, who attended neighboring Waubonsie Valley and has been a three-time All-American at the University of Nebraska.
Mia Pope is there, too, bowling for North Carolina A&T. A 2016 graduate of Lindblom Math and Science Academy on Chicago’s South Side, she’s one of the rare college bowlers to come out of the city.
She credited her freshman year appearance at the Illinois High School Association championship for drawing attention that is often hard to get for a city bowler.
The competition attracts dozens of college coaches — “If you can’t find bowlers from that tournament, you’re not doing recruiting right,” Hoffman Estates coach Dan Pfligler said — and Pope said it put her on the radar early.
“That’s the door opener,” said Pope, 19. “Now, schools have seen you. They tend to continue to look at you for the rest of your years.”
She is on a partial athletic scholarship — NCAA rules allow bowling teams a maximum of 5 full scholarships, with each usually divided among multiple players — and said it has helped to make college affordable.
“It’s really helpful, especially since I’m out of state,” she said. “(The cost) is nothing compared to what I could have paid elsewhere.”
But Karl Nickolai, coach for Michigan State University’s club team and president of the National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association, said families shouldn’t count on a huge windfall if their child is fortunate enough to be offered a scholarship.
“Bowling scholarships, by and large, will not pay for college,” he said. “They’ll help out, but they won’t be the primary contributor. You definitely need to do the math if you’re a parent.”
Falbo and Shannon O’Keefe, the head coach at McKendree, said they look for bowlers who demonstrate good and consistent form, and who have the mental fortitude and courtesy to be good teammates.
Miller said top programs also want bowlers who average around 200 — and luckily, the Chicago area has a good supply.
“These girls, they are really good,” he said.
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