Not all of Nick Menendez's friends think bowling is cool. Even his girlfriend will sometimes tease him that it's more of an activity than a sport.
But during the summer, Menendez noticed their attitudes began to shift after he and four other Maryland bowlers won USA Bowling's 15-and-under national team championship in Allen Park, Mich., July 19. Their victory was televised nationally on CBS Sports Network Aug. 27.
"I was a little bit more popular," Menendez, 15, of Crownsville, Md., said of how life changed after the victory. "People wanted to be around me a little bit more."
The same could be said for Laney Wells and James Bennett of Huntingtown, Md., John Banfield of Odenton, Md., and Nate Trentler of Phoenix, Md. They joined Menendez on the Chesapeake Bay Strikers, a five-person team (four boys, one girl) of nationally-ranked bowlers brought together to win the national title.
"The buzz in bowling is dying. Kids aren't going into bowling," said Leo Menendez, Nick's father and the coach of the Strikers. "But we are seeing just the opposite."
At Greenway Bowl in Odenton, Md., where Nick regularly bowls, a banner hangs commemorating the Strikers' national championship. That, along with their nationally televised victory, has created a curiosity about the sport that has led to an uptick in participation.
Two new teams have been added to the junior league Nick bowls in, and Leo said Greenway Bowl is as busy as he has ever seen it.
"Winning a national title is unique," Leo said. "It certainly draws attention to you, where you bowl, who you are."
Most of the Strikers barely knew each other when the team first came together in 2018. Leo assembled the team through phone calls and social media after seeing a T-shirt at one of Nick's junior national events alerting him to the existence of a national team championship for USA Bowling.
The team settled on the name, Chesapeake Bay Strikers, to let everyone know it was a Maryland team. Other teams at the national tournament, like the South Central team the Strikers beat in the championship match, had names that merely indicated their general region.
"I had no intention of recruiting outside of [Maryland]," Menendez said. "I knew the kids we were recruiting were very good, and I didn't think I needed to go outside of the state to field a competitive team."
In Michigan, the Strikers, champions of the Northeast Region, were one of 16 teams competing for the national title.
The first day of the event featured a round-robin format, and the Strikers did not fare as well as they would have liked, winning just seven of their 15 matches. But they did finish with the second-highest pin total, thanks in part to rolling 12 consecutive strikes, which gave them some degree of confidence heading into the elimination round.
With everyone in the venue hanging and cheering on every roll, Banfield produced the final three strikes of the 12 in a row (a Baker 300 in bowling parlance) to give the Strikers the surge of momentum they needed heading into the final day.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of USA Bowling
"It was truly nerve-wracking," Banfield said of having the pressure to maintain the run squarely on his shoulders. "If you could see my face, I was white as a ghost. I was so nervous."
Then, the Strikers came through again to win the title. After defeating the South Central team in the championship match, they were all interviewed on camera, prompting a flood of text messages and congratulatory notes from those watching back in Maryland the following month.
"Bowling doesn't get the exposure, but I will tell you this, as a small area, what these kids did in winning this national championship, it has put us back on the map," said Danny Wiseman, a PBA and USBC Hall of Famer from Baltimore. He helps coach three members of the Strikers.
"Our bowling area is growing, and there is a ton of talent coming up. I am very proud of these kids, as are so many, that have had a part in the development of this bowling area."
This story has been updated since its original publication. Wiseman was originally listed as a former professional bowler, but he still bowls on a part-time basis.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of USA Bowling
Issue 258: October 2019
Originally published Oct. 15, 2019