By Randy Whalen
It's been a special season for the Bulldogs.
And it will conclude, as a special season should, with another trip to the IHSA state finals.
They Bulldogs took second of 16 teams at the Lockport Sectional at Strike N’ Spare II on Jan. 25, making them one if six teams that advanced to the state finals. The members of those teams and the top seven individuals from the bottom 10 teams will roll for the final time in the 2019-20 season at Friday, Jan. 31 and Saturday, Feb. 1 at St. Clair Bowl in O'Fallon.
Connor Pula, a sophomore from Evergreen Park was one of those individual state qualifiers. Pula averaged 231.5 and had a pinfall of 1,389 and finished just 18 pins behind champion Chris Bienvenu, a junior from Plainfield Central.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, emerged from a competitive sectional that may be among the toughest in the state.
"We were undefeated (15-0) in all our dual meets and won our [South Suburban] conference tournament by 498 pins," Richards coach Kari Vanderjack said. "It's been an excellent season and it's still going on."
It was obvious which team was the best to advance out of Lockport. That was Minooka, which finished with a pinfall of 6,529 and had four bowlers in the Top 11 on the day. The Indians, who finished second in state last season, were the only team that rolled over 1,000 in every game. It was their second straight sectional championship, third in four years, and fifth in seven seasons for the Indians.
Richards (6,399), which qualified for state for the second straight season and third time in four years, had a trio of 1,100 games. Joliet West (6,227), which finished third in state last season, was eighth after the morning session and seventh after four games before vaulting to third.
Lockport (6,147) qualified for state for the second straight season, the seventh time in the past eight years and 12th time since the state finals began in 2003. Plainfield South (6,118) will head to state for the first time since winning it all in 2010. Lincoln-Way West (6,107) rallied from seventh place in the final game and will go to state for the fourth consecutive year.
Lincoln-Way Central (6,037) had a bad last game and fell out of the top six after being there all day. Sandburg (5,976), Bremen (5,731), and Oak Lawn (5,669) rounded out the Top 10. Oswego (5,629), Shepard (5,508), Oswego East (5,479), Stagg (5,429), Marist (5,366), and T.F. North (5,218) filled out the 16-team field.
Three Richards bowlers finished in the top 18: sophomore Danny LaBonte (12th, 1,320, high 265), junior Blake Attig (13th, 1,319, high 242) and senior Owen Szarley (18th, 1,309, high 236).
Matt LaBonte, a senior, did his part with a 1,257, which included a high of 236. Nick Schopper (826, high 254) bowled the first five games and fellow junior John Englund rolled a 209 in the last game. Junior Josh Barr and sophomore Dom Stahulak didn't bowl for the Bulldogs.
"It feels great to know that the team is behind me," Danny LaBonte said. "There are times I struggled a little bit to keep my head in the game, but the team picked me up.”
Richards had scores of 1,100, 1,065, and 1,120 in the morning for a total of 3,285, which was 98 pins behind Minooka at the break. The afternoon brought a 1,029, 973, and a capper game of 1,112.
"We hope to continue to bowl well at state," Vanderjack said. "It's not about one person, it's about the entire team."
As a team, Sandburg did well this season. A year ago, the Eagles graduated one of the top bowlers in the country, Cameron Crowe who was second in the state last season and is now bowling at St. Ambrose University. The Eagles won the Bremen Regional at Centennial Lanes in Tinley Park with a 6,212.
"I think you are going to see all six of these teams from this sectional go to day two at state,” said Sandburg coach Jeff Kwilose.
A pair of sub-1,000 games did the Eagles in at the sectional, and they finished seventh, 131 pins behind Lincoln-Way West.
"We shot well. We just had a couple of games that we didn't quite do it,” Kwilose said. “A spare here, or a spare there. That's what it comes down to."
Alex Grezlovski led Sandburg with a 1,268 series, which included a high of 247 in the third game. Every game for the senior was at least a 200, but he still finished 57 pins out of the final qualifying spot. Sophomore Joe Zellinger (1,206, high 236), also averaged over 200 per game for the Eagles.
"As a senior, I put everything I had out there and threw the ball great," Grezlovski said. "I couldn't do much more than that."
Bienvenu was a surprise individual champ. At the Southwest Prairie Conference meet, he placed 20th. Although he had a 181 in the second game at sectional, every other game was 200 or better. That included monster games of 290 in the opener and 297 in the fourth game.
Pula was amazingly consistent. He had a morning series of 704 (246, 247, 211), which placed him seventh; but while most of the field fell off in the afternoon, he didn't and rolled a 685 (220, 221, 244).
Sophomore Tyler Bartczak (1,283, high of 246 in Game No. 3) led Shepard and was 42 pins out of qualifying. Junior Tony Lundy (1,252, high of 242 in Game No. 6) from Brother Rice was 73 pins out of the cut. Freshman Ramiro Garcia led Oak Lawn with a 1,210, which included a high of 247. Senior Alec Jovanovic (1,207, high 250) paced Stagg, and senior Kivonte Houston (1,200, high 256) led Marist.