By Dedra Cordle
Art Susi had to fight back a smile as he looked around and saw concern etched on the faces of opposing coaches and players during the Division I Boys Bowling District Tournament on Feb. 29.
His team from Briggs High School paid the gathering crowd no mind, too focused on climbing up the leaderboard, but he couldn’t help but take a moment to revel in the sight.
“I know it was wrong of me,” said the second year coach with a big laugh, “but to see all of these great and storied bowling programs worried about an up-and-coming City League school from the westside was amazing.
“It made me realize the amount of respect these coaches and players had for our boys and what they were doing.”
He said it was a feeling made all the more remarkable considering the program was disbanded a few years ago.
It was the start of the 2017/18 calendar year and sophomore James Pappas and junior Jordan Lumbard were looking forward to a new bowling season. The team had collected its program’s fourth runner-up title in the city league and Pappas had nearly made it to the individual state tournament the previous year. To say they had goals and expectations would be putting it mildly.
“We all wanted to improve as individuals and as a team and when we found out that we would not have that opportunity really sucked,” said Pappas.
It was during a discussion with the boys in an advanced math class when Susi, who has been teaching at the school for two decades, was inspired to restart the program.
“I had been a big fan of the girls program and was very supportive of the boys team as well,” he said. “It was just heartbreaking when they couldn’t find a coach and had to halt the season.”
Having bowled recreationally, Susi said he didn’t know the ins and outs of the game, so he recruited his fellow educator and childhood friend Joe Coplan to join him.
“He didn’t have much bowling knowledge either,” he admitted, “but we were determined to learn as much as we can as fast as we could.”
With the help of former girls bowling coach Jim Martiny and the relatives of Pappas and Lumbard, Susi and Coplan began their crash course in the sport and set out to get a team ready for the 2018/19 calendar year.
With Pappas and Lumbard recruiting, five additional students joined the team, a majority of whom did not have much experience.
“I bowled a couple times as a kid with my family, but that was the extent of it,” said junior Sebastian Davis. “I really just joined because several of my friends were on the team. I’m glad I did though because I ended up loving it.”
With the expectation of success set at a lower level for the regular season, Susi and Coplan told them just to go out there and have fun.
And they did. And they continued to practice. And Pappas and an injured Lumbard took extra time to help their teammates improve. And so did their families. And then others in the community joined in. And then they started to win – a lot.
“I was honestly surprised at how good we were,” said Pappas, who later went on to place fourth in the individual state tournament. “I knew we had talent but I wasn’t expecting to do what we did that year.”
What they did was become a division champion and earn the program’s first City League Championship.
“It was unbelievable,” said Susi. “To go from a program that wasn’t around the previous year to winning our league the next was unreal.”
This year, the team was determined to reclaim the City League championship, make it to the district tournament and then the state tournament. They achieved two out of the three.
“Shortly after winning our second City League title, we almost lost in the sectionals but squeaked into the district tournament as the 14th team,” said Susi. “It wasn’t our best performance but we made it.”
On Feb. 29, the boys bowling team performed above average in the regular matches – fluctuating between second, third, fourth and fifth place on the leaderboard – and below average in the Baker games, a typically strong suit of theirs. While they made opposing teams sweat and bite their nails, the Bruins finished in sixth place and did not qualify for the state tournament.
“We missed making the state tournament by 58 pins,” said Susi. “We are all disappointed by the outcome but we are so proud of our effort and all that we have achieved these past two years.
“No one was expecting this from us, but here we are, knocking on the door to the state tournament with just 58 pins separating us.”
While the season has officially ended for the team, they will spend this weekend rooting on Pappas and Dakota Fink as they represent the boys and girls bowling program in the individual state tournament. After that, the team will sit down and talk about all of the goals they want to achieve next year.
“I think that we will continue on this unexpected road to success,” said Susi. “We have most of our team coming back and each player has improved so much from where they started. We have two boys who could compete at states next year and we would like to be there as a team as well.
“We’ll see what happens but I feel good about our chances,” he said. “We have a group of really terrific young men who are smart and dedicated and truly supportive of each other. We want to make this community proud and I think we’ll continue to do that.”