After a tumultuous year, NKU club bowling continues to improve
Read more about NKU club bowling at NKU
November 12, 2021
On a typical day at La Ru Lanes in Highland Heights, Kentucky, the sound of bowling balls knocking down pins and the smell of lane oil and shoe cleaner consume the bowling alley. But once a week, these auditory and olfactory senses are accompanied by the Northern Kentucky University club bowling team. The club was started in 2009 by Chris and David Robish as more of a time for leisure than an avenue of competition. Joe Lawson and Dave Hampton, whose son bowled at NKU, were the first official coaches.
Now, the team is led by the trio of Phil Connell, Randy Wilson, and Darrin Rump. Connell, a graduate of NKU, became the head man in 2017 when his daughter joined the team as a student. It was a combination of coming to multiple practices and also having a background in the sport that led to his elevation to a prominent role.
Wilson is in his third year as the coach of the men’s team. His son also attended NKU and bowled before there was a men’s side to the club sport. Wilson is also in his ninth year as the bowling coach at Seven Hills high school in Cincinnati.
Rump is in his fourth year as an assistant with the women’s side. His background in bowling includes serving as the president of the local chapter of the United States Bowling Congress.
In addition to being the main coach, Connell also runs multiple businesses; he runs Connell’s Creations Landscape Company in the summer, and prioritizes Hitt’s Pro Shop in Newport during the school year. Hitt’s is located next to Walt’s Center Lanes, which the team uses as a second practice location during the year. Owning a pro shop also gave Connell access to a contract with Brunswick, which provides bowling balls for the women’s team.
Sierra Brandt serves as the club’s president, and is also one of the top competitors on the women’s side. Her credentials include a 299 high score (only one pin shy of the 300 maximum), a third place finish in the state tournament as a senior at Cooper High School, and winning a 2020 tournament hosted by NKU.
“Last year I was the treasurer. And with COVID and everything, it kind of became really stressful, and Phil really leaned on me to be the lead person on the team. And coming into this year, I wasn’t really given a choice. He was like, ‘You’re gonna be my president because you’re the one that can get it done for me,’” Brandt said.
As club president, Brandt, a senior social work major, is in charge of scheduling tournaments, finances for the club, sponsorship, new recruits, and travel arrangements.
The women’s team is coming off of a year in which they were ranked 38th among women’s college teams, and third in the nation among club teams. They also won the Ohio Bowling Conference championship in the spring of 2021. The team is temporarily dropping their ‘three weeks on, one week off’ competition routine to let senior Paige Stokes compete in as many tournaments as possible before she graduates in December.
“The last two years the women’s team has been really, really good,” Connell said.
Through three tournaments this year, Brandt believes the women’s team has underperformed. There are four freshmen on the team, but Brandt sees their potential.
“They’re still in the developmental stages of learning how to down-lane target and different ball motions and everything. Right now it’s a learning curve, and then hopefully we’re gonna go up,” Brandt said.
On the men’s team, Chris McDowell is one of the top competitors, but the junior computer information technology major has an interesting story outside of bowling. McDowell joined the team during the 2017-2018 school year before joining the military.
“A recruiter came up to me and was like, ‘Do you want to join the military?’ and I was like ‘Maybe’ and next thing you know, I’m on a bus going to boot camp,” McDowell said.
He served for two and a half years in Newport, Rhode Island and Beauford, South Carolina. McDowell said he wanted to work on airplanes, but his test scores placed him in information technology. He was eventually discharged after a knee injury and multiple surgeries, and returned to NKU to continue his studies and rejoin the bowling team. Before joining the military, McDowell placed fourth out of over 100 bowlers in a 2018 tournament, which he says is his proudest accomplishment in the sport. He also boasts a high score of 289.
The men’s team is currently in the middle of a rebuilding year, Wilson says. Due to issues with academic eligibility and a shortened season because of COVID-19, the men were barely able to field a full team. But they are on an upward trajectory this year. Even with two members that are new to collegiate bowling, the men have progressed in each of their first three tournaments.
Wilson notes that the key to the team’s progression has been the ability to knock down single-pin spares. While McDowell is excited for every tournament in which he competes, he is especially looking forward to upcoming conference tournaments and the Hoosier Classic in Indianapolis.
A typical season lasts from August to April. The Norse team practices twice a week, one day at Walt’s and one day at La Ru. The two main things Connell has them work on are bowling on upcoming competition oil patterns and knocking down various spares.
According to Brandt, the team normally competes three weeks in a row, then takes a week off before repeating the cycle. Tournaments are held over the weekend to allow for adequate travel time. Per USBC collegiate rules, each team is allowed to bring eight men and eight women to competition. After several months of competition, they use the month of February to prepare for the national postseason tournament. Similar to college basketball, the top 80 men’s teams and 64 women’s teams are invited to nationals. The Norse usually compete within a two hour driving radius because of budgetary restrictions, but that does not stop them from being competitive.
“We’re in the Ohio Bowling Conference. There’s about 25 teams in there, and they’re pretty competitive. But we’re really one of the, especially on the ladies’ side, one of the top three teams,” Connell said.
Even though they are classified as a club team, Connell knows he has the talent level to compete with the best schools in the sport, perennial powers like Weber International, McKendree, and Pikeville.
“I don’t like that name ‘club’. That’s what we fall under because I report to the club director, but this isn’t club bowling… We’re competing against the schools that are fully funded with 10 scholarships,” Connell said.
Speaking of scholarships, the team will soon be able to offer awards to potential recruits, a luxury they previously could not afford. The team has a decent travel budget and receives a small amount of money from NKU, but uses fundraisers to pay for their remaining expenses. This past December, Doug Martin— an avid bowler himself and comrade of Connell’s— donated enough money for the bowling team to be able to offer 10 $5,000 scholarships, which Connell hopes will increase the talent level on the team.
“I get emails and letters from kids all over the country now inquiring about bowling,” Connell said.
When the coaching staff is interested in a recruit, they will usually bring them to NKU for a practice or two, not only to see what kind of bowler they are, but how they interact with the rest of the team.
When asked about his goals for the team, Connell responds with one word:
Part of his determination comes from those who told him he couldn’t make NKU a winning program. But after just three years at the helm, he has done just that. Despite how far the team has already come, Connell aspires for a championship. It doesn’t matter if it’s a club or national championship, he simply wants to bring a trophy home to Highland Heights.
“I want a national title for that school because I know that it brings notoriety. It’s just like winning March Madness. Everybody knows who you are,” Connell said.
With his daughter working on her master’s degree at NKU, Connell does not know how much longer he will be the head coach, but he knows his successor will have the tools to keep the Norse competitive. And as the team continues to grow in talent, he hopes that more members of the NKU community recognize how far they’ve come.