This past summer, student athletes preparing for their respective upcoming high school seasons faced a variety of challenges.
Gyms were closed across the state for an extended period of time and some practice and sports fields were similarly off-limits. Getting together in groups to practice was largely discouraged.
As time passed, ways were found to institute safe policies and procedures so sports could continue. But one sport that had potentially the longest wait to get back into action, for obvious reasons, was bowling.
For Eastern Regional, a team that has both the defending 2020 NJSIAA Boys Bowling Individual Champion as well as one of the best girls teams in South Jersey, the delay was frustrating.
“Typically, most of our varsity bowlers would bowl in other leagues during the summer and stay practicing their form and technique,” said Eastern coach Eric Datis. “But of course this year, the bowling alleys themselves were shut down much like everything else.”
As discussions raged at the state level about the potential for winter bowling — ultimately leading to an 11-game schedule — Datis said teams were left with very little time to practice and get to know one another before starting the season.
“It was kind of a whirlwind of a bunch of different thoughts about what might happen before we were told the season would start in about a week and a half,” he noted. “We all had to get ready very quickly.”
Eastern still fared well, as always. The boys team finished 7-2-1 on the year and second in the American Division of the Olympic Conference, while the girls continued at the top of their division for the ninth consecutive year after finishing 9-1 in the regular season.
Tom Burns, who claimed the individual state title last season as a sophomore, said the limited opportunity to practice last summer was a real challenge in getting prepared for the now-finished season.
“Normally, I would’ve been able to go to the alley whenever I wanted and be able to practice for a few hours to up my game,” he explained. “Those days that I felt like I really needed to go practice, I just couldn’t.”
Despite the challenges, Burns broke the school record for highest average for a season, at 224, in Eastern’s final match against Shawnee, as he continued to improve his game in junior year.
At the conclusion of last season, Burns set himself the goal of being the first person in state history to win the individual title in a consecutive three years, something he couldn’t chase since COVID forced cancellation of this year’s state tournament.
“At first it really bummed me out, but as the season went on, I really started to place more of an emphasis on having fun with the team and making the most out of this year that we can, since we’re lucky to be playing at all,” he said.
But Burns hopes to compete in a potential state tournament next season in his quest to be a back-to-back state champion and defend his crown.
Junior Madison Feldschneider, the high scorer for the girls team, agreed with Burns that it was difficult to stay active and practice in the months leading up to the season. Very much a fan of the game, Feldschneider kept herself immersed virtually, as she usually does, until she could get back to a lane.
“I’ve always watched bowling on YouTube and TV and I’ve always thought about strategy and how to improve my technique and form,” she noted. “So I did that in the meantime. But it was difficult to improve myself at all since I couldn’t see myself or actually do it myself.”
With the team graduating three seniors, it will have half its current roster next year, according to Datis. While Feldschneider has childhood dreams of bowling in college, her next goal is to recruit more girls to join the team for the 2021-2022 season.
“As of right now, we only have three girls for next season, so I want to be able to recruit as many girls as possible for next season so we can help teach them how to bowl and have another good season at Eastern,” she said.
Datis said one of the most difficult issues leading to the past season was the inability to recruit boys and girls due to COVID. That led to slightly smaller rosters for both teams.
“I didn’t get to really recruit like I normally do in my school and promote the bowling team,” he revealed. “That’s how the teams grow, especially the girls team in recent years, with them coming in and learning as a freshman and getting better over time.
“Our numbers this year were half of what they normally are; I hope to get back to those other numbers next year.”