Entering the 2019-20 season, expectations were modest for the Camden County Tech – Sicklerville boys bowling team.
The Warriors had a little bit of success in recent years, winning the New Jersey Technical Athletic Council Tournament in 2018 and piecing together a winning record in the 2018-19 season. However, the team wasn’t a top contender at sectionals in either of those seasons.
“Expectations coming in were very low,” senior Alfonso Penna said. “We always wanted to be good, but we weren’t there.”
This season, everything came together at Camden Tech. Returning bowlers such as Penna, senior Stephen Schaff and junior Michael Howard showed immense improvement. Standout freshman Caleb Bertino joined the team to add a boost to the lineup. Josh Buffington, Gage Patton and Matthew Schmidt added depth and helped to make the Warriors a South Jersey powerhouse.
All seven varsity bowlers contributed to a history-making season for Camden Tech. After winning the Olympic Conference National Division title with a 15-1 record and taking first place at the New Jersey tech school tournament, the Warriors won the South Jersey Group 3 title on Feb. 1, shooting a 3,043 series to best second-place Toms River South by 80 pins. The sectional title is the first in program history.
“Me and (Penna) were talking all the time,” Schaff said. “Fingers crossed we’ll get an amazing freshman and maybe we’ll have a chance at doing something. Maybe we’ll be better than last year. But nothing of this level.”
The seeds of Camden Tech’s success were sown in the preseason. The Warriors returned all but one member from last year’s varsity team. The one open spot in the lineup was filled by Bertino, a talented bowler who only began competing in the sport last June.
“I didn’t know much about it,” Bertino said of Camden Tech’s team. “I knew the school had a bowling team but I didn’t know how good they were. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest.”
“Caleb is not the first freshman that I’ve had that has qualified to be a varsity member,” Camden Tech coach John Kammler said. “When he shows up out of the blue and he’s as good as the top shooters on the team, that kind of sealed it that this is going to be a good year.”
Bertino emerged as a force, regularly shooting series of 550 and higher. The freshman wasn’t the only reason for the team’s improvement, however. Howard, a bowler who bowled a 120 average not long ago, regularly bowled games of 170 or higher this year. He led the team with a 678 series at sectionals and qualified for the individual state tournament in the process.
“I’d trade spots with (Penna) any day,” Howard said about qualifying for states. “He deserves it. I haven’t been bowling in tournaments. I only (recently) did my third tournament in Pennsylvania. So I’m not really used to the spotlight to all of these other good bowlers around me. It’s going to be a new experience for me.”
Buffington, Patton and Schmidt all provided valuable depth as part-time players on the varsity lineup. All three bowled 500 series or better in the majority of the varsity matches they participated in.
Camden Tech also benefited from the leadership of Penna and Schaff, two bowlers who had been with the program since they were freshmen.
“We try to keep the energy up, keep each other up,” Schaff said. “We try to practice as much as possible together. Whenever one of us has free time, we’re in a group chat asking who else is trying to practice. It’s not only about building a bond during our matches, but outside our matches.”
“There are no superstars here,” Kammler added. “They’re all great, working together, sharing the spotlight with one another and taking credit for their success and their mistakes as individuals.”
The combination of talent, team chemistry and work ethic led to a memorable season for Camden Tech. The team placed in the top-three at the Olympic Conference Holiday Bowl. In regular season play, the Warriors won 13 consecutive matches to start the year before falling to Washington Township on Jan. 23 in their lone loss of the season. Five days after the loss, Camden Tech rebounded with its first place finish in the New Jersey tech school tournament, giving the team momentum heading into sectionals.
The sectional tournament went better than the Warriors could have imagined. Camden Tech shot 1,053 in game one to take a commanding lead in the South Jersey Group 3 standings. Game two was more of the same, with the Warriors shooting the best series in their section at 1.042 pins. After two games, Camden Tech led second-place Toms River South by 111 pins and was able to cruise to the sectional title in game three.
“For me and Steven, it’s been something we’ve wanted for a while, for every year we’ve been there,” Penna said. “We thought last year we may have a chance, but we weren’t as strong as we are now. It meant a lot to us, to not just make it (to states), but to win (a sectional title).”
“We don’t get to see that too often,” Kammler said about the team winning a sectional title. “I know it meant a lot to them, especially the outgoing seniors. I’m really proud of how they finished and how hard they worked to get here.”
With Schaff, Penna and Schmidt all set to graduate this year, the Warriors will have a much different look when they defend their title in 2020-21. Regardless of what lies in the future, however, Penna believes this year’s team will always share a special bond as the team that lifted Camden County Tech to new heights.
“They’re like family to me,” he said. “Especially Steven, me and him have been together all four years. I hope for the best for them, because they still have years to go.”