ALLEN PARK, Mich. - The 2018 World Bowling Youth Championships will get underway this week at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, Michigan, and some of the members of Junior Team USA recently were able to sharpen their skills with the ultimate practice session - the weeklong Junior Gold Championships.
Five of the eight Junior Team USA representatives headed to the World Youth Championships (July 25-Aug. 3) were eligible to compete in the 2018 Junior Gold Championships, held earlier this month in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The event is known as a challenging test of mental and physical versatility for the nation's top youth bowlers.
The Junior Team USA boys from the 2018 World Youth Championships roster who competed at Junior Gold were Cortez Schenck of Phoenix and Jeffery Mann of West Lafayette, Indiana. For the girls, the trio of Taylor Bailey of Joliet, Illinois, Caitlyn Johnson of Rockwell, North Carolina, and 16-year-old Mabel Cummins of Elburn, Illinois, also competed in the Lone Star State.
All five of the team members made it to the final advancers round in their respective divisions - 20-and-under boys and 20-and-under girls - which means they each bowled at least 26 games across six different oil patterns and nearly a half-dozen bowling centers.
"This week was a pretty tough week, during which we got to bowl on different patterns and at different centers, and I bowled pretty well overall, which is a nice confidence boost heading into the World Championships," said Schenck, a 19-year-old right-hander, who was sixth overall heading into the U20 double-elimination bracket at Junior Gold. "Being able to compete at the World Championships is something I've worked hard for, and to get picked is an honor and a dream come true."
The 2018 World Youth Championships will include more than 200 competitors from 37 countries, bowling for medals in singles, doubles, team and Masters competition.
Joining Schenck and Mann on the boys team at Thunderbowl Lanes will be Junior Gold veterans Wesley Low of Palmdale, California, and Bryan Hahlen of Greenwood, South Carolina.
"Shortly after our Junior Team camp, we got the calls and invites for World Youth, and I know everyone has been practicing and working hard to get ready," Schenck said. "We've all wanted this for a really long time, and we definitely want to be as prepared as possible."
Low is a two-time Junior Gold champion in the U20 division (2013 and 2017), while Hahlen finished third at the 2017 event, and though they didn't compete in 2018, they too have been very busy on the lanes.
In fact, Low, a five-time Junior Team USA member, was in the Dallas area for more than 10 days assisting with a variety of equipment demonstrations and other activities and still made sure to set aside time to practice and stay sharp.
He'll enter the 2018 World Youth Championships as the defending champion in singles and doubles, while the Junior Team USA boys also have won three consecutive team titles.
On the girls side, Johnson, a first-time Junior Team USA member and World Youth Championships rookie, also used the challenge of Junior Gold to her advantage, as she was able to work with some new equipment and work on a few different things physically.
The 19-year-old right-hander tied for 16th place through 26 games at the 2018 Junior Gold Championships and won a one-game roll-off to earn the final spot in the double-elimination match-play bracket. A 3-2 match-play record left her among the top six at the end of a week that started with more than 850 girls in her division. She was looking to improve on a runner-up finish at the 2017 event.
"Learning my equipment was a big thing for me this week, and during the times I wasn't able to match up as well as I'd hoped, I was able to do a lot of versatility practice, such as working on different hand positions and speeds, and that really helped prepare me for what's next," Johnson said. "On the final day, I felt like I was throwing it really well, and not in my comfort zone. I was doing something completely different than I'm used to doing, and I did it well, so I feel really good going into next week."
Simply getting the chance to represent the United States is a dream come true for Johnson, but she intends to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I've always wanted to be an Olympic athlete," Johnson said. "I found bowling when I was 9 years old and pursued it from there. To actually be selected for the World Championships, I have no words. It's the most humbling thing I've ever been considered for. It's really nice to know my coaches and country believe in me to represent them."
All four Junior Team USA girls at the World Youth Championships will be competing in the event for the first time, though two members of the team do have international experience and past success.
The group will be joined by five-time Junior Team USA member Breanna Clemmer of Clover, South Carolina, also a collegiate standout and national champion with McKendree. Clemmer and Bailey are teammates at McKendree.
Clemmer, a 20-year-old right-hander, has won more than a dozen medals as a member of Junior Team USA, while Cummins, the U15 winner at the Junior Gold Championships in 2016, earned six medals in the Junior B category at the 2017 Lee Evans Tournament of the Americas.
Past experience, familiarity with each other, top-tier coaches and competing on their home turf has helped add to the confidence.
"I feel really confident in our ability to come back with a lot of medals," Johnson said. "We technically have the home-field advantage, and I know a lot of the parents are going, including mine, who are driving up. We have some of the best coaches, and the players all communicate and work well together, whether it be in college or when we get the chance to practice together. It all just helps add to the confidence."
The last time the Junior Team USA girls won the coveted team gold medal at the World Youth Championships was in Bangkok in 2012. They claimed bronze in 2014 and silver in 2016 in a loss to Korea.
The World Youth Championships is held every two years.
The opening ceremony for this year's event will take place Wednesday evening, and competition officially will get underway Friday with the start of singles.
For more information on the 2018 World Youth Championships, visit 2018WYC.WorldBowling.org.