Charlie Heinke admittedly isn't what most people would call an athlete.
But Heinke is athletic, having participated in tennis and swimming at Tampa Prep. Now, the 17-year-old senior has found something that matches his abilities, athleticism and interest level: bowling.
"I like it a lot," said Heinke, a new bowler on the Tampa Prep boys team. "I'm not particularly talented at it, but bowling is a great sport. Everybody loves bowling, and it attracts a wide variety of people. You can have fun, but it is still a sport and you get to be part of a team and be competitive against opponents."
Well, sort of.
While bowling is one of 19 sports officially recognized by the Florida High School Activities Association, it is not an interscholastic sport throughout the state — and hardly at all in the bay area. In fact, the area has just nine schools with prep bowling squads. In Tampa, that list is shorter and composed of mostly private schools: Bayshore Christian, Jesuit, Tampa Prep and charter school Brooks-DeBartolo.
So why don't more public high schools in Hillsborough County field bowling teams?
"It's partly economics; it's partly logistics," said Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson. "And another big reason is that Hillsborough County is centralized. If it is offered at one school, it has to be offered at all schools. And there are 27 high schools in the county."
That's where the logistics come in.
There wouldn't be enough lanes to accommodate public school teams either, Robinson said. Whatever the reason, public high school bowling just hasn't materialized in the bay area. And that's despite the FHSAA reporting that bowling participation statewide increased 21 percent from the 2009-10 school year to 2010-11 — one of the biggest jumps in the state along with football, soccer and lacrosse.
Social, physical fitness
"It's really too bad because it's a great activity for young people, everyone really," said first-year Tampa Prep bowling coach Jason Zook. "It's a social activity and a physical one at the same time."
Zook, also the manager at Pinarama Bowling Lanes in South Tampa, points to his roster when pressed about what the sport can offer.
"We've got all kinds of kids," said Zook, who bowled professionally for four years. "Kids who play tennis, golf, run cross country and others who've never been on a varsity team. It's a fun activity and offers a lot."
A push since the '50s
High school bowling in Florida started in the 1950s and spread from there, mainly to Central Florida and the Orlando area. In fact, since becoming sanctioned before the 2003-04 school year, the state bowling championships have been held in Orlando every year except one. This year's finals are again scheduled for Orlando the first week of November.
When bowling popped up on the FHSAA radar about 10 years ago, former Tampa Prep athletic director Carol Chalu rallied members of the Bay Conference to pursue programs, said current Tampa Prep AD Mike Flynn. That eventually helped lead to the creation of the current bay area prep bowling teams.
But without many teams from the area, what are the odds of a local team actually competing for a state championship?
There have been some success stories.
Indian Rocks Christian's boys and girls won district crowns in 2009, and Brooksville Nature Coast's boys (the lone public school program near the bay area) actually won the state championship in 2007. Also, Tampa Prep bowler Samantha White qualified for the state tournament as an individual in 2005-06.
"The program is really good," Zook said. "The kids are good fundamentally and they are willing to learn. That's the main thing."
The next thing would be expanding the sport at the public school level, if some area bowling aficionados had their way.
"It's definitely an economic (issue)," Zook said. "And a lot would have to be worked out to make it viable, including schools raising their own money, but I would love to see it happen.
"There's a lot of people who love the sport, a lot of young people, and it would bee great to see the sport grow."
Rod Gipson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.