When the 2011-12 bowling season began, Greenmount Bowling Center youth coach Mike Bowen was concerned.
His numbers were down. Whereas the Greenmount youth leagues had, in the past, filled all 12 lanes for league play, this year only six or seven lanes were needed, Bowen said, blaming the economy and a large number of kids who had graduated from high school the previous spring.
But he needn't have worried. What the Greenmount teams lacked in quantity they more than made up for in quality. And on June 22-24 in Glen Burnie, they proved it by winning Prep and Junior division titles in the National Duckpin Youth Association's national championship.
"For the same bowling center to win two national championships? Wow," said Bowen, a lifetime Hampstead resident. "I'm real proud of the kids. It's hard to do."
Bowen coached the prep team (ages 7-9) which consisted of Madison Bond, Zach Bowen, Zach Gaegler, Ina Rill and Abbey Rosenblatt.
Beverly Carter coached the junior team (ages 13-15) of Marcus Moore, Alexis Peat and triplets Haley Schaeffer, John Schaeffer and Michael Schaeffer.
The Greenmount teams qualified for the national tournament by winning the Western Maryland State Tournament in April.
In addition to teams from this area, they bested teams that had traveled from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia to win it all.
Bowen said, however, that the emphasis wasn't really on winning.
"This year, we really concentrated on making our kids understand we're here to have fun," he said.
Another Carroll squad also had success as the Major Division (ages 16-21) team from Mount Airy Lanes consisting of Tim Baer, Perry Butler, Brandi Martin, Graham Muhler, and Brent Wilkerson took third.
The kids were able to get in a little practice ahead of time at the Glen Burnie Bowl, but, essentially, they had to show up on Saturday morning at the big venue, hear their names announced, warm up for five minutes, and then bowl the three most important games of their lives.
"Lane conditions are different and you have to adapt. The best bowlers will make the correct adjustments," Bowen said, likening his role on tournament day to that of a psychologist. "As a coach, you have to keep their adrenaline down a little bit. Even a great team can lay an egg."
He cited one of his teams from a year ago, which practiced like a national champ but then only placed sixth.
Bowen is a former track and field coach - he said he volunteered under Henry Adami when Bowen's alma mater, North Carroll High, was winning state championship in the mid-1980s - and he likened the way he tries to get his bowlers to peak to track.
This year, he had them peaking at the right time.
The Greenmount junior team won the championship with a score of 2,160 pins (plus handicap). That was the highest score of any team of any age in the event. Alexi Peat had the high set for girls (328), Haley Schaeffer the high game for girls (123) and Michael Schaeffer was awarded the $500 scholarship that goes to the High Set Handicap boys winner for the entire tournament, finishing with a 462. In one of his games, he was a remarkable 50 pins over his average, rolling a 144.
"We tell them, 'All I want you to do is hit your average,'" Bowen said, noting that averages are established over the course of an entire year of league bowling. "Every kid, at one time during the tournament, bowled way over their average.
"It was fun to watch."
Sometimes the younger bowlers need a little incentive. That's part of coaching, too.
"The little ones, we bribed them with Peppermint Patties," Bowen said. "They're like, 'Oh, yeah, candy, I'll bowl a strike or a spare for that.'"
Bowen said Abby Rosenblatt, Madison Bond and Zach Bowen had big days at the Western Maryland event to help bet the team to nationals, then Ina Rill and Zach Gaegler took their turn to shine at the national tourney. Carrying a 73 average, Rill rolled a 90, a 103 and a 71 while Gaegler, with a 77 average, went for 105, 88 and 85.
As a team, Greenmount won both the scratch division (with 1,330 pins) and the handicap division (2,059).
Bowen said one of his most important tasks as coach was putting together teams. It's not simply a matter of pairing up the bowlers with the best averages.
"A lot depends on personalities - who will be a good teammate and help each other," he said.
Bowen credited Kaye and Joe Rineer, who own both Greenmount Bowling Center and Mount Airy Lanes, for the importance they place on youth bowling.
He also wants to recruit more kids to sign up at both houses for fall youth leagues.
After all, while the lack of numbers didn't keep the Greenmount teams from winning national titles this year, a larger base of bowlers might just help them in their bid to repeat.