Two years ago, Owings Mills football coach Mike Gunthrop agreed to temporarily fill in for a recently retired colleague and coach the Eagles allied bowling team.
"I did it thinking it would be a one-season thing and I actually ended up loving it," Gunthrop said.
This winter, he came back for another year with the team — composed largely of special needs students but sometimes including other students who don't have the skills or the desire to compete at the varsity or junior varsity level.
Last winter, the Eagles won the Baltimore County West Division Championship, but for his bowlers, Gunthrop said, it wasn't about winning.
"They couldn't have cared less about winning the championship, but they were thrilled to be out there with all the other kids competing," he said.
At the Eagles' first match Tuesday at the AMF Woodlawn Lanes, Gunthrop offered high-fives and a few tips. He says it's not as much about coaching as it is about encouragement.
Over the past three years, Gunthrop has learned what Hereford football coach Ric Evans and Franklin football coach Anthony Burgos already knew: Coaching allied sports is exceptionally rewarding.
"We're always having fun, always laughing," Evans said. "It doesn't matter whether they bowl 30 or 130, they're just having a great time doing it. I have a kid who tells me a joke every day. I've got a kid who does his strike dance whether he gets one or not. I tell them when they join the team, 'We're going to have fun,' and there's not one time we go to the bowling alley that we're not laughing and having fun."
Evans and Burgos have coached the allied bowling teams at their schools for six or seven years.
While they love coaching football, they enjoy the different dynamic of allied sports. It's only about the game. No one worries about playing time, making the big play or getting recruited.
"It's just about the excitement of the kids," Gunthrop said. "You don't have the different personalities and attitudes that you sometimes have to work around when you're coaching football. We have kids who just really enjoy being involved in something just for the fun of it."
All three coaches look forward to the break from the demands of football.
"I was coaching baseball as well," Evans said, "so you have a very intense season in the fall and you have an intense season in the spring, and I wanted to keep coaching in the wintertime, but I wanted to do something that was fun. Bowling is absolutely one of the most enjoyable things you can do and to do it with kids that appreciate and love everything you're doing with them. It's just awesome."
The Bulls finished third behind Owings Mills and Franklin in last year's West championships, but they might be the favorite this year. Evans said he has a freshman who bowled a 267 game recently, a score rarely seen in allied bowling competition.
Burgos, who guided Franklin's football team to two state championships in the past four years and to the state final this fall, said his bowlers can be just as competitive as his football players.
"In the beginning of the season, they just want to go out and play, but these kids are very competitive," Burgos said. "It's fun to watch them improve their bowling scores, and they just come with a different attitude. They come ready to participate every day and they're not worrying about all these other things that come with football, so it's really a good transition from football to bowling for me. I always look forward to it."
Brad Kressman, Baltimore County's resource teacher for the Allied Sports Program, said there seems to be a trend toward varsity coaches getting involved in the allied sports programs, which the county has offered since 1994.
Co-champions in the East Division last year, Loch Raven and Parkville are led by lacrosse coaches, Rob Persing for the Raiders and John Cooper at Parkville.
While Kressman said there are many great coaches in the program who don't coach varsity sports, an experienced coach on the varsity level in any of the allied sports — soccer, bowling and softball — can bring something more to the program.
"It really increases the visibility of the program in the school, having real experienced coaches," Kressman said, "because now [the allied athletes] share that same bond that maybe a football or lacrosse player has with those coaches. They have a lot of real coaching experience and that's a real benefit for the kids."
Gunthrop said he had little exposure to special needs students before he began to coach the bowling team.
"To be quite honest, because I don't necessarily work with that particular program in school, I probably wouldn't even be engaging them in school," he said, "but because now I coach them, I engage them every time I see them. When I see them, it's 'Hey, Coach' and I get to stop and talk to them in the hallway."
Burgos has a special connection with his young bowlers.
"I have a 7-year-old who has Down syndrome and I started doing it when he was about 1," Burgos said. "They're really helping me learn how to deal with and how to teach my young son. It's really been a blessing that God has put in front of me to kind of transition my personal life into my professional life. It's funny how things work."
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Before he started coaching bowling, Burgos taught a physical education class for special needs students, which, he said, made it an easy step to coaching allied sports. He also coaches allied softball in the spring.
Burgos said players from varsity sports such as football and girls soccer have come out to support the allied athletes. At Owings Mills, Gunthrop and the Eagles skipped football practice one day this fall to cheer on the allied soccer team during a game. The soccer players could not have been more excited, he said.
His involvement creates a connection between his football players and his bowlers, Gunthrop said. He's seen a few high-fives between them in the hallways. So have Evans and Burgos.
"It's great to see those students really embrace kids that they can impact," Burgos said. "It builds a good family relationship in the school. Our [bowlers] go around the school and everybody knows them. Franklin does a great job with that. I'm sure all schools do. That's when you see the greatness in young kids when they can come out and be supportive and understand that these kids are willing to work as hard as everybody else."