The Eastern girls bowling team secured its second South Jersey Group 4 sectional championship in program history in early February after finishing out a close match with Southern Regional that had Eastern trailing by 48 pins going into the final game.
The Vikings outscored the Rams 785 to 735 in the final game to win the title by just two pins, with a final score of 2,295 to 2,293 in favor of Eastern. Eastern won its first sectional title during the 2019-’20 season, before last year’s COVID-shortened season didn’t allow for sectional matches, meaning Eastern has now won back-to-back titles.
The season also marks the 10th consecutive season in which Eastern finished atop the Olympic Conference standings.
“Coming into the season I was pretty unsure of what we’d look like going in,” said coach Eric Datis, who is in the midst of his 11th season at the helm of the program. “We had a really good senior in Madison Feldschneider and a promising sophomore in Jessica Leonard who I thought would be good for us, but she didn’t get much of a chance to bowl for us last year, so our season could’ve gone one of several different ways at the start.”
After a strong but small team last season that featured three graduating seniors, Datis took to recruiting early for this season. Once the regular season got underway, his starting roster included Feldschneider and Leonard, along with sophomore Kyla McCorkle and freshmen Paige Paulsen and Kim Reed, who were all getting their first impressions of high-school bowling.
The obvious challenge presented itself at the start of the season of teaching and developing the newer bowlers as the season progressed. Thanks to their own work ethic and the leadership of the team’s lone senior, Datis said the squad’s growth as the season went on was visible from match to match.
“At the beginning of the season, you could see that they were very interested and they had some skills … But as the season went on you could see their confidence building and building as we kept working with them and as they got more comfortable and invested in the sport,” Datis said.
“[Feldschneider] took time out of her own schedule to work with them both in practice and outside of it,” the coach added. “She really took it to heart to help the team to do well this year. She went beyond what would be expected of her to try and mold the other girls into better bowlers as the season went on.”
Feldschneider, who will bowl at Chestnut Hill College after graduating this spring, said she felt like the team — much like all other teams across the country due to the pandemic last season — benefited immensely from the added practice time leading up to the start of the season.
“The training before this season was so important, since last year we really had nothing, it was just like going right into the season, while this year we had so much practice and time to get ourselves ready,” Feldschneider. “It’s been a really strong program for a while at Eastern, and coach Datis does a tremendous job at teaching how to bowl with the right technique.”
The team has now qualified for states all three years of Feldschneider’s high school career in which the state championship has been held, after also not being available last year due to COVID.
“It was honestly a nice surprise to see we were able to pull this off,” Feldschneider said. “At the start of the season, I thought second or third was more realistic to be honest. The progress our new bowlers — the new sophomore and our two freshmen — have made has been spectacular since they started at the beginning of the year.”
Leonard averaged a 167 throughout the course of the season, according to Datis, good for the highest mark on the team. Despite not getting sick with COVID last season, the then-freshman was forced to quarantine after being labeled a close contact at both the start and end of the year, thus only allowing Leonard to bowl in four of the teams 11 matches last season.
The experience, as one can imagine, was quite frustrating. But Leonard was excited to prove herself this year and feels that she and the team put together a phenomenal season despite the obstacles they originally faced.
“It was pretty frustrating last year; it was my rookie season and I really wanted to get out there and bowl and make a good first impression,” she said. “But I just didn’t have that chance. After a kind of shaky start to the season, I got the hang of it after that.
“This was an amazing way to end the year: The passion was there for us all year.”