Rushford-Peterson bowlers head to state this weekend

Members of the Rushford-Peterson High School Bowling Team are (L-R): Conor Board, Korey Burroughs, Nolan Mueller, Hale Stensgard, Easton Wilcenski, and Tristyn Hegland. Not pictured: Halen Schwendinger The team is traveling to Inver Grove Heights, Minn., on Dec. 1 to compete at the state tournament.
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The fall sports season isn’t quite finished. Rushford-Peterson’s bowling team is headed to the State High School Bowling Tournament in the Twin Cities, starting on Saturday, Dec. 1. 

Jim Kitchens, owner of the Nordic Lanes in Rushford, has been a bowling coach for the Trojans since 1992. “It’s not officially a school sport,” Kitchens said. “It’s basically a club sport and run by the Minnesota Bowling Proprietors’ Association. The season starts in September and we compete once a week on Saturdays. Each team bowls two matches. 

“It’s baker-style competition,” Kitchens added. “Five kids bowl at a time. The first bowler throws the first and sixth frames, the second bowler throws the second and seventh, the third bowler takes the third and eighth, the fourth bowler gets the fourth and the ninth, and the fifth bowler gets the fifth and the tenth frames. Those five bowlers combine for the total game score.”

Kitchens said R-P was quite a bowling powerhouse in the early 2000s. The Trojans were a solid group of bowlers every year, qualifying for state on a “pretty regular basis,” according to Kitchens. R-P teams have placed in the top five at the state meet.

“When we started this back in the early 1990s, we literally had five kids show up off the football team, grab some house shoes and house bowling balls, and went at it,” Kitchens recalled. “Now, we see other teams bring kids in that actually have multiple bowling balls of their own, each in its own bag. I’m sure it works for them, but I’ve never seen the benefit of switching balls in the middle of a game. 

“Our kids are taught to adjust what they’re doing instead of switching out bowling balls,” he added. “By the way, those bowling balls they come in with often cost over $200. If you haven’t bought a new bowling ball in a while, you’re in for some sticker shock.”

“There are no class breakdowns in Minnesota bowling competition,” he said. “You’re bowling against everyone, including larger schools that have a bigger talent pool to draw from. A lot of from those bigger schools just bowl, while a lot of our kids are involved in other sports. While we’ve bowled against some very good teams at the weekend matches, we’ve also beaten some good teams this fall, especially in the conference tournament.

“As the years have gone by, it’s been a little harder to get a lot of kids to come out,” Kitchens said. “It’s not a huge time commitment. It’s a little tough to schedule practices every week just because of all the other things they have going on. For example, middle schoolers play football on a different night than the varsity does. We just ask the kids to get in here to the lanes and practice. It’s just like playing golf in that success is all about repetition.

“Our kids did beat some good teams this season,” he added. “They beat Winona, who wound up with the second-highest scoring average in the state. Winona (regular-season Southeast East Conference champs) only lost three matches all year and we beat them two of those three times. We also beat Lake City in the conference championship.”

The high school bowling season actually has two postseason tournaments, during which teams can qualify for the state tournament. The first is called the Minnesota Qualifying Tournament (MQT). The top five in that tournament qualify for state. The other way teams qualify for state is to win the conference postseason title, which is the route R-P took this season. 

In high school bowling, each match is a best-of-five contest. Kitchens said each match is a “race to three.” The first team to take three games from the other team wins the match. Kitchens said the conference semifinal match against regular-season champ Winona was one for the books.

“Winona shoots a team score of 277 in the first game,” he recalled. “At that point, things got interesting as they began throwing a little trash talk our way. We bounced back to win the next game. At that point, our kids started giving a little trash talk back to Winona. They won the next game to take a 2-1 lead in the match.

“We get to the tenth frame of the fourth game,” Kitchens remembered. “At that point, if their best bowler throws a strike, they win. I don’t know what happened next. It may have been divine intervention. The ball fell off his hand and went straight into the gutter. Nolan (Mueller) went next and strikes out, so we won the fourth game.

“That got into Winona’s heads at that point and they were frustrated,” he said. “We basically had the game closed out before the tenth inning. We beat Lake City to win the postseason tournament. It was kind of a surprise to see Lake City. I thought for sure we’d see Wabasha-Kellogg. It got tense in the fourth game again in this match as well. Nolan (Mueller) struck out in the fourth game and we won 202-201.”

The state tournament starts on Saturday in Inver Grove Heights. Kitchens said there are 24 teams, with each of them playing a 10-game qualifier. The qualifier eliminates eight teams, with the rest of the teams playing the state tournament. 

“I’d love to see us make it past the first round this year,” Kitchens said. “We come in with an average score of 165 (out of 300), Are we a 165 team? No. I think we’re much better than that. In our case, it’s not a lack of strikes. If we can pick up those easy spares, I think we can do much better than that.

“We’ll head up to Inver Grove Heights on Friday night and check in to the hotel,” he added. “I’ve got a lane reserved for a little practice on Friday night. We’ll have a little fun on Friday night, get up on Saturday morning and start bowling at 10 a.m.”