On top of the world: Eastern’s Tommy Burns, Boys Bowler of the Year

Eastern sophomore Tommy Burns realized his potential on a second trip to states and became South Jersey’s first champion in eight years, earning Boys Bowler of the Year honors.

Eastern sophomore Tommy Burns has visions of following Steinert’s Ryan Carlisi (a back-to-back state champion in 2017 and 2018) and perhaps making history as the first three-time champ since the NJSIAA began awarding individual state champions in 2007. (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

The phrase “stay in your lane” is used across all kinds of conversations in modern everyday life, whether it’s a divisive political debate, friendly sports chatter, or, of course, a discussion of highway driving. But in bowling, it can also be taken literally.

It was pretty much the advice Eastern Regional High School bowling coach Eric Datis gave talented sophomore Tommy Burns throughout the year, as the two had visions of competing at states.

As a 14-year-old freshman last year, Burns advanced to states on his talent but finished 35th, a product, at least in part, of being a little distracted in an environment where all of his high school bowling friends across the state had gathered for the season’s ultimate event.

“Stay in your lane, be focused and ready to go,” Datis said.

Burns returned to Bowlero in New Brunswick last month with that lesson learned from 2019 and the desire to make history, too. Lucas Leandro, who works at the bowling alley’s pro shop, saw it in his friend’s eyes.

“After I shot a 277 (in) the first game he was like, ‘You have a look in this building that no one else does,’” Burns recalled of his conversation with  Leandro. “I was like, ‘That’s good to hear.’”

Burns laughed.

“(Leandro) was like, ‘I think this tournament might be in your favor today,’” Burns said.

His buddy was correct and Datis’ mantra paid off, too. 

Burns bowled the tournament’s high game in the first round (277) and rolled off the top series on the day, too (736), to become the first bowler in Eastern history to win an individual state championship. For his efforts, Burns, South Jersey’s first individual state champion since Kingsway’s Diante Fields in 2012, earned South Jersey Sports Weekly Boys Bowler of the Year honors.

“Hopefully I can go back to back,” the 15-year-old Burns said of having two more years of high school bowling before graduating in 2022.

Burns certainly has the talent to follow Steinert’s Ryan Carlisi (a back-to-back state champ in 2017 and 2018) and perhaps to top him with three straight, too.

“It’s a nice thing for our team and for me as a coach, to have someone I can point to and tell the other kids, ‘This is what it takes,’” Datis said. “You have to be practicing all the time. You have to be doing more than what we do during the week, getting involved in leagues. Because Tommy does all of that: He’s bowling in tournaments, bowls in three other leagues. It takes work, and they can see that firsthand.”

Burns entered high school with visions of bowling for a state championship, but his first goal was a little more modest: He wanted to join Matt Young as the only Eastern bowler in school history to have his jersey in the school’s trophy case. With a state title trophy in hand, he no longer has to worry about that goal.

“After I shot a 277 (in) the first game he was like, ‘You have a look in this building that no one else does,’” Burns recalled of his conversation with Lucas Leandro, who works in the pro shop at Bowlero in New Brunswick. “I was like, ‘That’s good to hear.’” (RYAN LAWRENCE/South Jersey Sports Weekly)

Burns is already working with college coaches and bowls in a league with the sons of professional bowler Parker Bohn. With a state title and a work ethic to work to improve his game through the next half dozen years in high school and college, Burns’ dream of bowling professionally doesn’t seem too farfetched.

“My last shot, to win (states),” Burns said of the most recent time he thought about becoming a pro bowler. “(I told myself), ‘This is what you’re going to have to do when you’re on tour one day, so get used to it.’”

Since breaking onto the high school bowling scene as a freshman, Burns’ biggest growth has been in his mentality. He brings a positive, confident and focused mentality to each match.

“I was watching a TV show the other night before states; it was (pro bowler) Jason Belmonte, and he was saying, ‘When you slip on your shoes, you have to think you’re going to beat every single person there. If you can’t think that, just leave,’” Burns said. “So I thought I could beat every single person (at states) and I ended up with a 277, and it felt pretty good.”

The scary part for the rest of the state’s bowlers: Burns isn’t even halfway through his high school career.