After Hunter Machin bowled his first 300 in late January, he celebrated in a pretty nontraditional way: He went home and took a nap.
But Machin's perfect game was anything but traditional — after all, he was only 12 years old.
While most of his fellow seventh graders at Dundalk Middle School are focusing on homework and playing with friends, Machin is busy at the bowling alley, winning tournaments against kids more than six years his senior and being coached by PBA Hall of Fame inductee Danny Wiseman. And his talent at such a young age is enough to draw attention from seasoned professionals.
"I've seen a lot of really, really good talent around the country and around the world, actually, and the thing that I see with him is, even though he's young, there's a maturity," said Wiseman, who has been touring professionally for more than 25 years.
Most kids' bowling experiences extend only as far as birthday parties and the occasional family outing. But for Machin, now 13, competitive bowling has always been a way of life.
His father, Bruce, was a professional bowler on tour for five years. Bruce picked up the sport from his father and got his first job as a pin chaser at Dundalk Lanes at age 14. He and his wife, Vickie, brought Hunter to their Saturday night bowling league at AMF Country Club Lanes on Pulaski Highway in Middle River just a week after he was born.
"He pretty much grew up here," said Vickie, who carries around an old photo of Bruce holding months-old Hunter, gazing down a lane.
Hunter went with his family to bowl every Saturday night and traveled with his father to tournaments. After years of exposure and playing with his toy bowling alley in the basement (a gift from his grandfather), Hunter decided he wanted join in the competition.
"I was watching my dad and all I kept saying was I want to compete like him," he said.
So at 9 years old, he joined his first real league at Brunswick Perry Hall. He even saved up enough money to buy his first "real" bowling ball, which can cost between $150 and $200. And since then, he has bowled in nearly 300 tournaments and won thousands of dollars in scholarship money.
Hunter won the Parker Bohn III Junior Scholarship Tournament in September in Howell, N.J., and placed third in the Junior Bowlers Tour event in January in Wilmington, using his first 300 to amass a personal-best set of 760. Pavlinko Pro Shops also recently sponsored him as a junior staff member, meaning he gets free equipment along with opportunities to learn more about the bowling industry.
It was immediately clear Hunter had natural talent, Vickie said, but being a successful competitive bowler takes much more than that. So Bruce approached his childhood friend Wiseman about coaching his son on the finer points of the sport.
Wiseman, a Dundalk native who has won 12 PBA Tour titles, said Hunter reminds him of himself when he was starting out, although Wiseman didn't bowl his first 300 until he was 15 or 16.
"To come back here and be able to utilize my knowledge and what I've seen around the world … I'm glad to be able to share that knowledge with the younger kids, because they're not going to get that anywhere else," he said.
However, Wiseman emphasized that the game has changed a lot since he was Hunter's age. Bowling is much less popular than it once was, but there has been an uptick in the junior bowling scene as youngsters begin to take advantage of new technology.
For example, Vickie tracks every frame of every game Hunter bowls on a tablet app. She also carries around a binder with graphs of different lane conditions. And when so many variables go into the outcome of the frame — from the lane surface to the oil patterns and even the type of machine that dispenses the oil — such resources are extremely beneficial.
"A lot of people think it's just getting out there and throwing the ball, and it's not," Vickie said.
All the technical aspects can be hard to grasp, especially for a 13-year-old. And although Hunter understands more of the intricacies than many of his peers, his parents and Wiseman try to keep in mind that he's still a just kid.
"As he gets older, I'll become more intricate with him, start explaining things a little more heavily in detail about why this happens, what this happens when you do this," Wiseman said. "Right now he's just raw talent, and he's got great rhythm, you just don't want to mess with it."
But being a kid means different things for Hunter than it does for the average seventh grader. It means finding time to do homework after bowling practice ends at 9 p.m. It means leaving baseball camp early to go to the alley. It means traveling hundreds of miles nearly every weekend for tournaments in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Las Vegas or wherever they may be.
"He would bowl in his sleep if he could, you know, that's just what he does," Vickie said. "He eats, sleeps and breathes bowling."
Although Hunter, who still manages to be an honor-roll student and a school ambassador, said he sometimes wishes he were a "normal" kid, he wouldn't give up this lifestyle.
"When you love bowling, you want to just keep doing it," he said.
Hunter's goal is to eventually go pro, but his favorite part of the sport now is going to competitions, "because you get to have fun and play around with your friends."
His parents are confident this goal is achievable, and although it means busy schedules for them as well, they are dedicated to helping him succeed.
"He's going to be the next Danny to come out of Dundalk," Bruce said. "Danny says it himself, you know, so I got to let him grow, but I also have to let him compete. He's got to compete. It's going to make him or break him."
"He's just a good kid," Vickie said. "I can't complain."