Photo: Etowah’s E.J. Teal competes in the 2023 AHSSA state bowling tournament at The Alley in Gadsden. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
The Etowah and Gadsden City boys and the Southside girls earned berths in the AHSAA state bowling tournament after solid showings at the North Regionals at Trussville’s Spare Time Bowling Center earlier this week.
As a result of reaching the regional semifinal round, the three teams advanced to the state tournament on Feb. 1-2 at the Bowlero Bowling Center in Mobile.
Seeded in last place following the traditional play seeding on Jan. 18, Class 1A/5A defending state champion Etowah (10-2) rallied from a 3-0 deficit to defeat No. 1 seed Southside, 4-3, in the quarterfinals of the best of seven Baker format on Thursday, Jan. 25. The Panthers finished with more pins (1,218 to 1,141), rolling games of 219 and 210 in rounds 2 and 3. However, Southside struggled in the final four games losing the final round 200-162. Etowah then fell to East Limestone, 3-1 (687- 679) in the best of five Baker format semifinals.
Instead of folding their tent with their season on the brink, Etowah head coach Shawanna Roper said her battle-tested Blue Devils maintained their focus and patiently waited for the opportunity to gain the momentum.
“We have the ‘sudden death’ mentality that [the score] is 0-0 after every game in the Baker format,” she said. “We were in the same situation against Alberta two years ago [in the 2022 state tournament] and we came back from 3-0. We just stayed calm and kept our composure and let [Southside] think that they had us on the ropes. We went out there and fought and didn’t give up.”
Roper pointed to E.J. Teal’s split in Game 4 as the turning point in the match.
“I think that was the nail in the coffin. We gained a whole bunch of momentum after that and started throwing strike after strike. We hated it that Southside didn’t make it to state, but at the same time, we’re thankful that it wasn’t us who lost.”
Roper said the mental toughness of the state champion 2023 team carried over into this season.
“I really do think that’s the key in this sport. I know that every one of my kids can bowl; it’s how they respond in pressure moments that set them apart.”
Roper is not concerned about competing in an unfamiliar venue such as Bowlero.
“It’s going to be new territory for us, but our kids seem to focus more in a new environment, so I think that will work to our advantage.”
Southside head coach Zach Blume said it was a case of his team putting the cart before the horse.
“I think that our guys pretty much decided that it was over before it was over, and we just didn’t finish,” he said. “I also think the [Baker] format hurt us, because we out-scored them by 80 pins. After we gave Etowah a little bit of an opening in that fourth game, the momentum shifted and soon everything came crashing down. Etowah had some struggles in the seeding round, and they are too good of a team to have been an eighth seed. Etowah is the defending state champion, and when you have a good team like that down on the mat, you can’t let them up.
“It’s a shame, because this was by far the best boys team experience-wise and depth-wise that we’ve had. We’re bringing back out three all-region platers (Trey Morgan, Evan Clay and Dalton Suther), but we graduate six seniors, which is a big loss. This was a special group, and I hate for the season to end the way it did.”
As the fourth seed in Class 6A/7A, the Titans (11-3) opened championship play with a 4-2 (984 – 849) victory over American Christian before falling to eventual regional champion Hewitt-Trussville 3-2 (806 – 871) in the semifinals.
This will be Gadsden City’s first trip to the state finals in three years.
“American Christian is a really good team, especially their 4 and 5 guys,” said GCHS head coach Artesia Jones. “We went in there and took care of business. We hung with Hewitt-Trussville, but I think our guys got a little bit nervous in the last game. Only one of our guys has been to state, so it was a new experience for most of them.”
Jones pointed to Max Howard, Gabriel Brito and Derik Henson as key factors during the tournament.
“Those three guys really stepped up and got locked in. That helped us out so much.”
Jones said the team members used the week delay between the seeding and championship rounds at The Alley sharpening their skills on getting spares.
“When it comes to the Baker format, that’s the most important thing,” he said. “So I think [the delay] had a positive effect since we used the time wisely on what we needed to do to get better.”
In the Class 1/5A girls bracket, Southside (24-4) swept Corner, 4-0 (646 – 433) in the quarterfinals before coming up short to Scottsboro, 3-2 (756 – 766) in the semifinals.
Gadsden City lost to Sparkman, 4-1 (732 – 422) in the first round of championship play.
“Other than our top three, we didn’t bowl very well in the seeding round,” said Blume. “We did what we were supposed to do and took care of business against Corner. Against Scottsboro, it switched from being the best-of-seven to the best-of-five because of time constraints, and since we out-scored them, I think we would have won if [the semifinals] went best-of-seven. Quite honestly, we just didn’t get the breaks that you need to win in a close match like that one.”
Blume, however, likes the Lady Panthers’ chances in Mobile.
“If we play the way we’re capable of, we’re the best team in the state. All but one of our four loses was to a 7A school, and two of those teams are favored to win state. I’d put our 3, 4 and 5 girls up against anyone in the state. It’s not as if we don’t have the talent or experience to win; We just need all of our girls to step up at the same time.”
In the traditional format seeding play on Jan. 24, the Southside boys finished first and the girls runner-up in Class 1A/5A. The Panthers bowled a 2,834 score, 150 pins better than runner-up John Carroll Catholic. Morgan rolled a 637 series to edge Scottsboro’s Dylan Chastain by two pins. Clay came in fourth with a series score of 615, while teammate Suther placed eighth at 564.
The Lady Panthers’ score of 2,181 was 51 pins behind East Limestone. Southside’s Cora Clontz rolled a 534 series to notch the top individual performance. Teammate Kelsy Hull came in third at 492, while Keira Phillips finished ninth at 442.
In the Class 6A/7A boys competition, Gadsden City came in fourth overall with a score of 2,508. Howard finished with a 659 score to finish second in individual play.
The Etowah boys and the Gadsden City girls both placed eighth. The Blue Devils rolled a 2,274 score, while the Lady Titans bowled 1,686.