Photo: The Southside High School girls bowling team gathers for a photo after winning its fourth straight AHSAA state championship on Jan. 24. Pictured, sitting from left: Cheyanne Bohannon, Grace Ann Clontz, Courtney Boren, Ashlee Hull. Standing, from left: assistant coach David Clontz, Jessica Clontz, Rose Losco, Keilsy Hull, Jalyn Foster, Jennifer Clontz, head coach Zack Blume. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
For the fourth year in a row, the Southside High girls bowling team performed at its best when the stakes were the highest.
Sparked by standout efforts from seniors Grace Ann Clontz and Ashlee Hull, the Lady Panthers held off Thompson, 1,556 to 1,537, to win the AHSAA state bowling championship last Friday
(Jan. 24) at Oak Mountain Lanes in Pelham.
Clontz rolled a 233 in the final round’s traditional game format, while Hull posted a 214 score. Hull finished with the four-game traditional series at 841, followed by Clontz at 825.
The teams’ combined 3,093 pins set a new state girls tournament record for girls, breaking the previous record by 279 pins. It was the second straight year that Southside faced Thompson in the championship match.
“This is an amazing group of girls,” said Zach Blume, who has been head coach of the team for all four state titles and a quarterfinal finish in 2016. “We knew all year that Thompson was the team that would give us the most trouble, so we knew that we had to get a good seed so we wouldn’t see [Thompson] until the finals. Our girls stepped up and bowled better than I’ve ever seen them bowl.”
The Lady Panthers reached the finals with a 1,400 to 949 victory over St. Clair County in the first round, a 1,383 to 1,086 quarterfinal win over Hazel Green and a 1,533 to 1,295 triumph over Sparkman in the semifinals. Hull’s 245 score against the Lady Senators in the semifinals was the top game in the girls’ field, 13 points better than Clontz’s 233 in the finals. Cheyanne Bohannon bowled a 224 to finish second in the semifinals. Jennifer Clontz rolled a first-round individual best of 223 against St. Clair County.
“This [state title] was the most fulfilling one, by far,” said Grace Ann Clontz. “For the last few years, the ending matches have been really close, but this one as the most relaxing one for the most of us, because we’ve been through it so many times before and we expected it to be a tough journey. The fact that we’ve gotten four in a row really proved that we’ve done everything that we could.”
Blume pointed to his team having three years’ worth of championship match experience under their belts was a key factor against the Lady Warriors.
“No matter what happened, these girls were never down, and they were never out. They’ve won 56 [matches] in a row, so they’re always going to find a way. Basically, they don’t know how to lose. I told them before the [championship] match just to let them all fly, and it was a sight to see.”
Blume pointed to his senior class of Hull, Bohannon and Grace Ann Clontz setting the tone for the finals.
“After Thompson made a little bit of a run to start with, those three girls stepped up and put the team on their backs. Ashlee and Grace Ann started stringing strikes together in the middle of the game and helped us maintain a good cushion, and when those two stopped a little bit, Cheyanne started stringing strikes together.”
In addition to those battle-tested veterans, Blume pointed to an underclassman who provided a clutch shot in the arm to the Southside cause.
“I brought in our eighth grader, Keilsey Hull, and she gave us the biggest lift we got with several strikes. She was on the team last year but didn’t throw a ball in the championship match, and this year she turned out to be our ‘x’ factor.”
The Lady Panthers built a 107-pin lead over Thompson heading to the last game and clinched the match by the seventh frame, which, in Blume words, “gave our seniors the opportunity to throw their last ball with a smile of their face.”
Southside also finished first in the seeding play on Jan. 23 with an overall score of 2,719 to Thompson’s 2,670. Grace Ann Clontz rolled an overall 611 score to finish second individually, while Ashlee Hull came in fourth with a 585 score. In individual games, Grace Ann Clontz finished runner-up in the first round with a 225 score.
“It was really fun to play with these girls and be around them, and I’m really happy that we won four [state titles],” said Bohannon. “I wish we could stay a little bit longer and win another one.”
Blume considered his roster over the past four years as a once-in-a-lifetime group.”
“These seniors were in eighth grade when we started this program, and we were so lucky that they were all kids,” said Blume. “I could coach for the next 50 years and probably never have a group that comes close to this one. They’re that special.”
Although he said the 2017, 2018 and 2019 titles were special, Blume shared that this year’s first-place blue plaque holds particular significance.
“This may end up being my favorite one, just because of how close we are as a group. We all started this team not knowing what high school bowling was even going to look like, so we kind of grew up together. Now, we’re kind of experts in the field. These girls are putting up records that may never be broken.”
Blume acknowledged that for the first time in five years, the program must replace several key players at once.
“We have some good players coming back, of course, but it will feel different not having Grace Ann, Ashley and Cheyanne. Those girls have been the heart and soul of this program for years, and you can’t replace kids like that. Every once in a while, as a coach, a special kid comes along, and I got to have three of them at once. It’s a little bittersweet knowing that I won’t be able to be their coach anymore.”
Blume appreciates the fact that many of his players are considered local celebrities at their home bowling alley, Paradise Lanes on Sutton Bridge Road in Rainbow City.
“These kids have never really asked for that spotlight, but they haven’t shied away from it. Just looking at the younger kids watching our girls compete, you can tell that they’re a little bit starstruck. That’s really cool to see from a group of kids that I got to meet when they were 13 years old.”
In other action at the state tournament, the Gadsden City boys made it to the quarterfinals. GCHS senior Dakota Jones rolled the best traditional game in the Jan. 24 elimination round with a state-record 287 in the Titans’ 1,621 to 1,306 first-round win over Corner. The previous state record was set in 2016 by Gadsden City’s Jonathan Kilgo, who rolled a perfect 300 round. Gadsden City then lost to Thompson, 1,587 to 1,421, in the quarterfinals. The Titans’ Elijah Avery bowled a 234 against Corner, good for fourth place individually.
In the first elimination round, the Hokes Bluff girls fell to Thompson, 1,473 to 1,051, while the Southside boys came up short to Sparkman 1,563 to 1,259.
“I’ve been here since the beginning, and we’re more of a family than anything else,” said Ashlee Hull. “The last state championship means more to me than anything else, because this is my last [season], and the last one just means more.”