By Blake Ells
Vestavia Hills captured its first boys bowling state championship by topping East Limestone on Jan. 24 at Oak Mountain Lanes in Pelham.
A relatively new sport to state competition, the bowling championship has been recognized by the Alabama High School Athletic Association since just 2016. The championship includes all high school classifications, 1A-7A, allowing for the unique declaration of one true state champion.
The Rebels have been quietly laying a strong foundation for their program, finishing as state runners-up each of the past two seasons. Todd Evans has served as the team’s coach for each of its four years, but he is quick to credit the teams that came before this one and how integral they were to reaching these heights – guys such as Travis Saunders, Will Evans, Sam Lawhon and Barret Blackwood.
“Our old teammates taught us the spirit of competition,” said senior Boris Lu. “Travis Saunders played football before he began bowling. That group of guys led our team. They set the standard and taught us how to compete. Many of us were not athletes and did not have the same drive.”
Lu and his fellow seniors, Cameron Monistere and Beau Reed, were driven by the desire to avenge those championship shortcomings on behalf of the teammates who have since graduated.
“During their senior year, we were runners-up,” Lu said. “We all remember the pain and the tears we shed that day. We did not want to experience it again. They continue to support us. They relish in our success and share in our defeat. They always ask us how we’re doing and visit at every opportunity.”
Lu estimates that more than 100 enthusiastic Vestavia Hills bowling supporters went out to Oak Mountain to support his team.
Diversity Bred a Close-Knit Team
This team had a vast diversity in personalities, Lu said. Even more memorable for many among the group is how they came together under the leadership of Evans when they otherwise may have not done so.
“This team is really special because we are all incredibly different, but we have created a family like no other,” Lu said. “It’s a miracle that we mesh so well. No other sport can bring these unique backgrounds together.
“We are able to joke around while bowling or in everyday life. We have fun, and I can’t say the same for most teams. Coach Evans is a large part of the jokes and fun. I’ve always believed this group was a miracle. Not everyone can find such a unique band of misfits, especially in high school where cliques and stereotypes are scattered around. We win and have fun. Laugh and cry. Everything we do, we do it together.”
That bond provided an outlet for Evans to teach his team about much more than competition, and the seniors who now move on from his program value those lessons.
“Coach has taught us how to become great teammates, but even better men,” said Monistere. “I say this a lot, but a team that is this diverse usually doesn’t come together as friends as well as we did. It’s actually hard to explain in words how this team could overcome all of our differences and become such fantastic friends.”
Reed believes that this group achieved great heights because of the focus instilled within him and his teammates by Evans.
“We’ve talked a lot about moving on from the previous frame and focusing on the current frame,” said Reed. “I’ve told the team many times that if you make a bad shot, bounce back from it and don’t dwell on it. Coach has also kept us focused on how we are bowling and not how other competitors are bowling.”
The seniors leave an everlasting mark on their school – the first class to ever achieve a state championship. It’s something that they’ll take pride in for years to come.
“It feels amazing,” Monistere said. “I hope the guys behind us can continue to win championships to show people that we are the most dominant team in the state.”
And that’s still surreal. While they had all been a part of two teams that had finished second before, this is the team that reached the top and that is still new and a delightful surprise.
Team Members Being Groomed for the Future
But they will leave the program in good hands. Reed is confident that his younger brother, Walter, will be among those who carry the torch.
“This year, I had the task of looking at our junior varsity to find a potential alternate,” Reed said. “My younger brother worked his butt off to be at the top of his game and, hopefully, he’ll make varsity. He stepped up really big in regionals and the state tournament. I’m proud of him and the rest of our team for being able to keep a tight focus on the task at hand. It still feels unreal knowing that I bowl for the best team in the state.”
The 2020 version of this team that will try to repeat will not only have the younger Reed, it returns its highest finishers in individual competition, Nick Watts, who placed eighth, and Mason Maners, who placed 20th. The future is bright for this still young program.
“We seniors have driven this team to aim for the top,” Lu said. “Nick Watts has worked insanely hard this year to support the seniors. He knew how much we wanted this championship and wanted us to find that success.
“We have a massive junior varsity we continue to teach and support. We teach them more about bowling like adjusting and technique so that they can learn and share with the future of our team. Our success pushes them to continue to thrive and carry our legacy as one of the best teams in the state.”