When Fairway Lanes closed in August 2020 after 62 years of business, it was the lone bowling alley left standing in Lewis County, leaving an entire bowling community with nowhere local to bowl. That included the W.F. West girls bowling team, fresh off winning its first state title in school history in February.
Now the Bearcats are tasked with the challenge of finding a practice location this month while they prepare to defend their state title. They haven’t played or practiced together as a team since the state tourney in February, though six of the girls played in a junior league up in Tumwater over the summer.
But with the season fast approaching and preseason practices set to begin February 2021, the Bearcats are looking for a practice spot to call home. Once bowling alleys are allowed to reopen, W.F. West assistant bowling coach Rich Bunker has a few places in mind for Bearcats to practice. Those include the Triangle Bowl in Longview, Westside Lanes in Olympia and/or Aztec Lanes in Tumwater.
Another possibility that would cut down on travel time even more is the Morton Victory Lanes, which is currently being revamped for a January reopening, Bunker said. Luckily, the school already agreed to transport the team wherever they needed to go for practices and competitions, Bunker said.
“It’s going to be tough, but if they let us bowl I think we can manage it,” Bunker said.
Part of the problem with traveling out of the county to practice, or even out to Morton, is it gives the players less time to complete homework. Bunker said there is a possibility for the players to get a ‘zero-hour,’ meaning that they would be allowed to get out of school around 2 p.m. on practice days.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen yet, but we’ll see how the schedule works out for that,” Bunker said.
Another hurdle for the team other than finding a place to practice includes gauging how many players are going to turn out for the team this season. When W.F. West first started its bowling program in 2018, not one of the 20 girls who turned out had ever bowled in their life.
Three years later, the Bearcats are coming off a season where they went 15-0 as league, district and state champions, and bring back a plethora of talent and experience.
“We know we’re just as good this year as we were last year,” Bunker said. “The girls we have coming back are all better than ever.”
The Bearcats lose two formidable bowlers to graduation, Kelsey Stritmatter, the 2020 co-league MVP who placed fourth at state, and Ellie Bunker, who placed 13th at state. But they return two of their top three finishers at state, including perhaps the top girl bowler in Washington state.
Sophomore Piper Chalmers, a first-team all-league selection, placed third in state this past spring after leading the Bearcats with a 196 average during the regular season. She brings a decade of bowling experience and is the only Bearcat who had bowled before joining the team.
“She’s probably the best bowler in the state,” Bunker said.
The Bearcats also bring back three other first-team all-league picks in senior Brianna Powe, a powerful two-handed bowler who placed ninth at state; Junior Cami Aldrich averaged a 165 for the year; and senior Jessica Loflin, who averaged a 160 during the season. Also back is senior Annabelle Lopez and sophomore Clara Bunker, who saw some varsity time for the Bearcats last season. One newcomer who could make some noise and have an impact this season is junior Audrey Toymbee.
“The problem is, we have so many girls that are so good, if they continue with the COVID bowling rules, which could change at any time, we won’t get to have as many bowl,” Bunker said.
The current WIAA rules allow bowling teams to only field four varsity bowlers and one substitute during matches. Baker games have also been eliminated for this season, so only head-to-head matches will take place. And due to lane conditions differing from one lane to the next, two girls from each team will bowl against two girls from the other team. This is different from the usual style of bowlers from one team bowling in the same lanes together.
“You get through them pretty fast but, in my experience, it’s not the same as when you’re bowling with your own team,” Bunker said.
He’s hoping at least baker games get reinstated so it gives some of the younger bowlers a chance to bowl and gain experience. He’s not even sure if they’ll be able to field a junior varsity team.
“I’ll tell you what, these kids can handle it. They’re good,” Bunker said.