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Their Passion for Bowling Keeps the Alleys Rolling

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – On the first day of the first competition in program history, little could have gone better for the Youngstown State University women’s bowling team.

At a tournament in Reading, Pa., the team won their first match. Then their second. They dropped the third to the No. 12 team in the country, Delaware State University, but rebounded to beat No. 17 Kutztown University before finishing the day with another win.

For those keeping track, that’s a 4-1 record on the first day of varsity bowling for the Penguins with an upset over a ranked team. By season’s end there were more match wins, more upsets – including three over teams in the top 10 – and a ranking as one of the 25 best collegiate women’s bowling teams in the country.

“It was something we talked about a lot last year. We would love to be ranked as a first-year program,” says coach Chelsea Gilliam. “We knew that it was going to be hard because there’s a lot of tough teams in collegiate bowling and the fact that we actually did that is amazing.”

Those results earned Gilliam a nomination for the National Tenpin Coaches Association Coach of the Year award.

Between her hiring in March 2015 and the start of practice last October, Gilliam spent most of her time on the recruiting trail and finding a bowling center in the Youngstown area to serve as her team’s home alley. She eventually chose the Holiday Bowl in Struthers.

As a first-year program, the team is young – six freshman and two sophomores – and wasn’t burdened with the expectations of, say, the YSU football team that’s expected to compete for titles year in and year out.

“It was really good because we kind of had our own mark. There’s nothing that we had to live up to. [We] set our own standards,” says freshman Rachel Darrow.

Over the course of the season, Gilliam says, she was almost surprised at the response from the community. At Holiday Bowl, where she plays in a Monday night league, other bowlers checked in to learn the outcomes of the previous weekend’s tournaments.

“It is very popular and there is a lot of support around the community,” Gilliam says. “It’s just awesome that even though it’s a brand-new program, the community is really backing us and supporting us.”

Much of that support stems from the Mahoning Valley’s history of a love for the sport.

While numbers have trailed off nationwide over the years, there was a time when the Youngstown area was home to more than 25 bowling alleys, recalls Holiday Bowl owner Tom Eframedes, and all were packed from open to close.

When he bought the center in 1987, there were 43 leagues. Now, there are 25.

When Candy Budd started to work at Bell Wick Bowl in Hubbard 41 years ago, a typical Wednesday opened with teams of five women bowling on 20 lanes, followed by 18 teams of four before they broke for lunch. In the evenings, league play started at 6:30 and 9. And that’s just the women’s leagues at Bell Wick.

“On Wednesdays, we’d probably have 300 women bowling,” Budd says. “We have none on Wednesday any more.”

The bowling scene in the Mahoning Valley was so large that she and a friend ran a bowling newspaper for the area for a few years in the early 1990s. The meetings of the Youngstown Women’s Bowling Association, of which she was secretary for a time, were huge gatherings.

“There was nothing else to do in the winter. It’s northeast Ohio,” she says. “I didn’t start until my 20s, but for a lot of people, their parents bowled and they brought their kids to the alley. It was tradition. It was what you did.”

Today, leagues are what sustain bowling alleys in the Valley as passionate bowlers show up week in and week out over the course of a 32-week season. Without them, Eframedes says, he’d have to close.

The biggest reason league bowlers stay involved, Budd says, is because of the atmosphere that happens when you bowl with the same people every week.

“It’s for friendship, for getting out of the house. That’s why I started,” she says. “At the time I was the worst bowler in the world and we had fun and I got to know people. It becomes a family.”

Important in attracting both league and walk-in crowds, he adds, is making sure all the equipment runs well and that it’s a fun place to be. If a ball return or pinsetter breaks down every other week, recreational bowlers and league players alike will take their business elsewhere.

“You go to work for eight hours. Why would you come here and work another three? Have fun because you won’t make a living out there. So have fun, enjoy yourself and the beer will flow,” he says with a laugh.

Budd and Eframedes have seen many reasons for the decline. Year-round sports for middle- and high-school students are more common than ever. At all levels, people are more hesitant to commit to all 32 weeks of a schedule. There are just fewer people in the area.

“It’s the economy in this area,” says Holiday Bowl’s Tom Graham. “If I go to a tournament in the Columbus area, it’s packed. There’s the [Columbus Square Bowling Palace] that’s 96 lanes and you can’t get one. They have the hospitals and schools. In Youngstown, we don’t have the people any more.”

Despite the decline of the industry, there are some bright spots. So far this year, Holiday Bowl’s open bowling attendance is up over 2016. In March, a regional Professional Bowlers Association tournament at Bell Wick drew 111 competitors and another PBA regional tournament will come to Holiday Bowl in May, the center’s first since the 1960s, Graham says.

The younger generation – the players who could be playing for YSU in a few years – is also getting interested again, even if it’s not at the levels seen decades ago. Five years ago, because of bowling’s popularity as a club sport, the Ohio High School Athletic Association sanctioned it as a varsity sport. It’s since been split into divisions.

“That was a huge step,” says Struthers High School coach Bob Eisenbraun. “Bowling is the fastest-growing sport in the country. It’s an OHSAA sport now and there’s more than 300 teams.”

In addition to YSU, Holiday Bowl is home to the Struthers bowling teams. Bell Wick is the home alley of Hubbard, Brookfield, Liberty and Campbell Memorial high schools’ varsity and junior varsity teams.

With the players Eisenbraun’s had over the years, most have developed in the same bowling culture he experienced as a kid, where parents bowled in weekly leagues and brought their children along, as well as participating in children’s weekend leagues.

“Like me, it’s generation to generation,” he says. “Their mothers and fathers bowled and their grandparents bowled. They just take to it and keep going.”

Some teenagers, Budd adds, get involved with bowling teams because it’s just something to do. Then they find out they enjoy it and keep bowling, occasionally joining leagues or coming in for fun when the season’s over. OHSAA rules keep high school bowlers from competing in other tournaments during the season.

Also helping is the growth of NCAA bowling, locally evidenced by the addition of the program at Youngstown State.

As a first-year program, YSU couldn’t host tournaments but could next year. The addition of the sport may affect the bowling alley and the Struthers team, Eframedes and Eisenbraun say, but that’s further down the road and still a big “if.”

The sport also provides additional avenues to attending college. YSU has three endowed scholarships specifically for members of the bowling team.

“This is something you can do forever. We’ve got guys here Friday afternoon that are in their 90s,” the Struthers coach says. “It’s another avenue for the kids. Not everyone’s a baseball player or a football player or a track star.”

And even for those who take their first steps into the sport later, it can be rewarding, whether in recreational leagues or in competing for national titles.

“I didn’t start until my junior year of high school,” says Rachel Ellis, one of the two sophomores on YSU’s team. “I played basketball up until then. But as soon as I started getting on the lanes, I knew that this was something that I loved to do and I knew that I was good at it.”

With that top 25 ranking, Ellis and the rest of the team are well-positioned to make a mark on the bowling scene and, potentially, help reignite the community in the Valley.

“We told them when we were recruiting that we had high expectations for the program and that we eventually wanted to be a national championship program,” coach Gilliam says. “And they all had that same vision.”

Pictured at top: Leagues keep Holiday Bowl open, say mechanic Tom Graham and owner Tom Eframedes.

Center picture: YSU women’s bowling team at a practice session.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.