By Gene J. Kanak
INDIANAPOLIS - After the 20-and-under division champions were crowned Friday afternoon at Expo Bowl, the 2021 Junior Gold Championships pressed the pause button on competition Saturday and Sunday so bowlers from the U12, U15 and U18 divisions could take to the lanes for practice in preparation for their own tournament experience.
That experience began Monday as United States Bowling Congress Youth members converged on six bowling centers in the Indianapolis area for the first of four four-game qualifying rounds.
Jillian Martin marks first 300 off to-do list
Coming into the 2021 Junior Gold Championships, Junior Team USA member Jillian Martin of Stow, Ohio (pictured above), already boasted a bowling resume that will never be equaled by most bowlers three or four times her age. However, there was still one very prominent accomplishment missing: her first certified 300.
Well, after Monday, perfection eludes Martin no longer as she recorded a 300 game during her third game of qualifying at Woodland Bowl.
"Honestly, I've gotten to this point a few times recently, and I was like, I'm not shooting 290 this time. We're going to go up there, we're going to make a good shot and we're going to get this done," Martin said. "This was my fourth front 11, and we finally got it done, so that was pretty cool.
"My dad, my grandpa, my mom, they were all back there. My coach was obviously back there, so it was really cool to have them all here and to be able to experience it with them all."
Watch Martin's 300 here.
Martin, a 16-year-old right-hander, started her block Monday with games of 201 and 202, before connecting for 12 consecutive strikes. She finished with 228 for a 931 series and sits in second place in the girls division in U18.
Amanda Naujokas of Ronkonkoma, New York, led the opening round with a 968 total. Naujokas, the 2015 U12 Junior Gold champion, rolled games of 210, 278, 268 and 212.
Jeremy Kinealy of St. Louis rolled the first perfect game of the 2021 Junior Gold Championships. That came during Day 1 in U20 competition at Western Bowl on July 6.
Ohio bowler averages more than 250 in opening round at Expo Bowl
The top overall performance during Monday's opening round of qualifying belonged to Matthew Richards of Kent, Ohio, who rolled games of 244, 269, 279 and 215 for a 1,007 total, a 251.75 average, to lead the boys division in U18.
The 17-year-old has seen progress in each of his first two Junior Gold appearances (2018 and 2019), and the work he has continued to put in has been beginning to show.
"This year, I really have been working on my game," Richards said. "I've been really staying in the shot, and it's paying off a lot. I've seen a big change since the Storm Youth Championships in Indy, so I'm also very familiar with these centers."
Richards admitted to not feeling too comfortable at Expo Bowl during his practice session for Monday's pattern, however, as he worked to get his slide just right. He knew Monday would provide a new opportunity and relied on his mental game for the strong opening block.
"I felt OK about this pattern and wasn't striking a whole bunch, but I knew it was going to be a new day and I was throwing the best shots I could," Richards said. "My mental game and self-talk was really on point."
Richards hopes his big start will help propel him to a long week in Indianapolis, but he also doesn't want to get thinking too far ahead just yet.
"It's a great start, and it definitely will help me if I have a bad block," Richards said. "We still have 21 more games to go until match play and there's still a lot of bowling left. Anything can happen, so I just have to be patient."
Virginia league founders, bowlers make Junior Gold debut
Feeling that the youth bowling scene in and around Hampton, Virginia, was not all that it could be at the time, USBC Level I coach Terry Anderson and his friend, Addison Jones, had two choices: they could stand on the sidelines and accept the situation as it was, or they could take action and do something to make things better for the youth bowlers in their area.
They chose the latter, and because of that, on Monday, the two coaches and 38 of their bowlers got to experience the rewards brought about by years of hard work as the group made its Junior Gold Championships debut.
"To be perfectly honest, there were things we saw in other leagues that we didn't like. We wanted more transparency for our parents and our kids," Anderson said. "Addison (Jones) and I came together to co-found this league, and that's given us the chance to mentor these kids and watch them grow.
"Some of these kids don't have dads in their lives, so we work with these kids to give them positive male role models. Bowling is something that keeps these kids from being out on the streets and getting into trouble. This is a way that we can give back to our communities."
The Hampton Roads Junior Gold Travel league has been up and running for two seasons now and offers bowling opportunities to boys and girls from Virginia communities, including Hampton, Newport News, Williamsburg, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake.
Prior to the start of competition, Anderson and Jones gathered up their bowlers and offered some last-minute tips and suggestions to help them get ready to be at their best out on the lanes. However, at the end of the day, to Anderson, there is something far more important than scores and standings happening in Indianapolis this week.
"Our expectation is for these boys and girls to go out there and have a good time," Anderson said. "They've reached the pinnacle of their youth bowling experience, so now they're here to build memories. If they can bowl well, that's great, but the expectation is to come out and have a good time with their families because this is an experience that they'll be able to talk about for the rest of their lives."
Support behind the scenes
Obviously, being a Junior Gold Championships competitor can come with a certain amount of pressure as every boy and girl in the field knows that he or she is going up against some of the best youth bowlers in the country.
But what some people fail to appreciate is just how stressful this week-long event can be for the droves of moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, etc., who are behind the scenes serving as a chauffeur, ball caddy, ball rep, nutritionist, sports psychologist and more while living and dying with every single shot thrown by their youth athlete.
"There's a lot of pressure. It's exciting and kind of scary," said Cheryl English of Syracuse, New York, whose son Tanner Rozyczko is competing in the U18 division. "I want him to do well and enjoy himself at the same time, because sometimes it's hard to enjoy yourself when you're competing and really trying hard."
Chris Kennedy of Indianapolis, father of U18 bowler Meagan Kennedy, a four-time Junior Gold participant and the 2021 Indiana High School Bowling Singles champion, shared some of the same sentiments. That's why he tries to do whatever he can to help his daughter stay relaxed and perform at her best.
"When she was younger, it was more about helping her keep her emotions in check. Now, it's knowing when we, as her parents, need to stay out of the way," Kennedy said. "Meagan knows what she's doing out there, so we just try to do whatever we can to help take her mind off of things and keep her from getting too stressed out."