BY DENNIS BERGENDORF
This past summer, at the tender age of 17, Marcus McClain joined one of the most exclusive clubs in all of bowling. As the USBC Open Championships concluded its 15-week run — almost exactly one month before his 18th birthday — he knew he’d won an Eagle, after posting a stellar 698 to help lead S&B Pro Shop #1 to the team title. But there’s more to the story. Far more.
We say he helped lead S&B, because he was second on the team, and without Kurt Pilon’s 763 (or something pretty close), the group wouldn’t have beaten Higgy’s Aquarium by 22 pins — and we wouldn’t be doing this story. Pilon, of course, was the star of the show, and the next day would rack up 752 more pins in doubles and 671 in singles to take the all-events crown (himself claiming a rare double eagle).
Those in bowling circles thought Marcus was the youngest titlist ever, or that this was his first Open Championships and he was therefore the youngest to win an eagle in his inaugural attempt. Close, but no cigar, on both counts.
For the record, the all-time youngest eagle winner is a 16-year-old, Ohio’s Ronnie Knapp — who perhaps earns an asterisk, because he did that in 1963’s booster division. And this wasn’t Marcus’s first attempt. He competed last year with the crew from Belmar Lanes (a center owned by his grandfather Fred, the Great Lakes area senior star) at the invitation of Marcus’s father, Don.
While it had been pretty cool to team with his dad and famous grandfather at South Point Bowling Plaza, “being asked to bowl with Pilon and Billy O was a great experience,” he says. “And being able to win was something special.”
The Billy O he’s talking about is future hall-of-famer Bill Orlikowski, who now owns three eagles. The veteran had certainly heard of the phenom who had torn up the high school scene over in metro Detroit, but he had never even seen him until they met in the paddock shortly before their squad. “The first time I saw him throw shots was right in the Open Championships,” says Orlikowski.
Now, the back story: S&B has been one of the longest-lived and most formidable teams of the modern era (some folks may suspect they are a reincarnation of the Stroh’s Beer squad of the ‘50s, but that has not been proven). Since 2004, the core group has won team event twice, team all-events once, had four top-10s, and finished no lower than 44th a total of 10 times.
Originally put together by super-organizer and all-around nice guy Dan Ottman, it was a pioneer in the new nationals era in which the goal was no longer to get away and have some fun with the guys, but rather, Win, Baby! Remembers Orlikowski, “Dan taught us about the tradition of the Detroit teams and their chemistry and communication and trust.”
While 1997 may have been a bit early for shot carving, the Dan Ottman Enterprises quintet was built to play the lanes the right way and not be afraid to communicate. Their chemistry led to the fifth-highest score of the decade (and the ’97 Eagle, of course). Two years later they made a fitting encore, winning team all-events.
Ottman passed away in 2004, only days after that year’s incarnation of his multi-armed bowling monster clinched the ABC team title. By then, Kerry Kreft had become the team captain, and he was known to heed another of Ottman’s dictums: Be ready to bring in fresh talent, and don’t be afraid to shuffle things up.
In 2016 Kreft added Canadian star Dan MacLelland. In 2017 it was Pilon. And this year he shuffled things up even more, adding the youngish Andrew Burke and the even younger McClain. Kreft himself didn’t bowl with S & B, because his wife has experiencing complications in her pregnancy. (She turned out fine, and he bowled later, landing in 178th with Mitch Jabczenski’s Lodge Lanes.)
“Kerry was trying to captain the team from home, and let Kurt and me take the lead,” says Orlikowski. “I talked to Kurt and said if Kerry feels Marcus is ready, then I was okay.”
Pilon and Orlikowski knew they had a lot to work with. The boy had a second place in the Michigan high school championship, had won six Midwest Scratch Bowling Series titles, was a force in the Michigan Majors, cashed in two PBA events, and had accepted a scholarship to bowl on the Indiana Tech team.
Still, Billy O admits to having been concerned. Especially since Marcus didn’t travel with the guys. “He had to take a day off [from school] and drove in with his parents. He didn’t get a chance to bowl the BJ or anything like that.” They shook hands and man-hugged for the first time in the Syracuse OnCenter paddock, and went over the strategy — which involved putting the teenager in the third slot and newcomer Burke in second. Orlikowski would lead off, Ryan Mouw would bowl fourth, and Pilon would anchor.
“We had a pretty good game plan,” says McClain, who knew the pattern would be difficult at first, requiring good shots and a lot of patience. As a “power stroker,” he was one of the players who were inside a bit, while still keeping the trajectory fairly straight early. “We grinded out the first game for 1000, then it opened up,” says McClain.
“The lanes started to give us a little bit of shape and he was able to jump inside and not even flinch,” says Orlikowski. “He started to hook the ball and open up his game,” blasting the pins for 247-257. The team went 1213 and 1090 the last two to vault into first place.
“When we got done, I wasn’t even thinking about our score being on top so early.” But soon the reality set in, and back in Lincoln Park, he started watching scores. Come July, he knew he’d joined Anthony Simonsen (who’d won the 2015 doubles at the age of 18) as two teenagers who had scaled the tenpin heights.
When the Open Championships’ nine games were complete, Orlikowski walked over to Marcus’s parents and “told them I was very impressed. ‘He’s the most mature 17-year-old I’ve ever met.’”
Now a collegiate player, McClain will be limited in what he can enter. No more MSBS, Michigan Majors or PBA until the season is over. But come spring, the tournament world had better watch out.