BROOKSVILLE — It took quite a fight to get Nature Coast Technical High School back on the lanes. Now, the focus has shifted as the program aims to regain the dominance it was on its way to attaining prior to disbandment in 2008.
In 2007, the Nature Coast boys won only the sixth state championship in any team sport in Hernando County history. Then, bowling was controversially cut for budgetary reasons.
Because Hernando is home to one of the largest and most successful youth bowling programs in the state, parents were outraged to see the lone prep bowling program fall by the wayside. A grass roots campaign was started and over the course of two summers, parents and students raised money to help restart the program.
Seeing the concern firsthand in the students who entered her office, Nature Coast guidance counselor Carrie Piechowicz volunteered to take over as the team's coach, although she admitted she knew little about the sport. The kids needed a faculty member to step up. Until Piechowicz came along, no one had done so.
The task seemed simple enough. Take a group of motivated young bowlers and turn them loose against other high school teams across the state. While the boys and girls teams did well in 2009 with 8-2 regular-season records, there was something missing.
They had the talent. The boys were led by the now-graduated Connor Garvey. He tossed a 684 in the District 4 tournament to qualify for state, and finished 73rd at the state meet in Orlando, rolling a 744 series over four games.
However, the boys struggled toward the end of the season with the Baker format that determines who moves on in the team competition, and the Sharks failed to get to finals of their district.
"It was a disappointing way to end the season," Dalton Dokoupil said. "Now we're going to be focusing more on Baker (doubles), because that was the reason we came up short last year. It's tough to sit there and have no control over the game for frames at a time, but that's why we have to trust in each other so much."
The girls had more success last season, but there was room for improvement. The Sharks top trio of Nikki Williams, Franki Palermo and Melissa Martin led the way in 2009 and should all play major roles again this year.
"I try to pump my team up as much as possible," Palermo said. "As the captain, it's my job to keep the bad attitude away."
Williams was the frontrunner after tossing a 653 series as Nature Coast won the District 4 championship last year. She followed that with a 775 series at state. The junior was the 12th seed going into the championship bracket with a chance to win the state individual title, but lost to Lauren Booke (Boca Raton) and Kayla Henriques (Park Vista), both of whom placed.
Plans to improve the program took form as soon as the 2009 season ended and carried into the spring and summer. With the help of the booster club, Piechowicz recruited Vic Oliver and Valerie Palermo to take over as hands-on assistants for the boys and girls teams, respectively. Their knowledge of the sport is expected to be a huge plus.
Competing in Spring Hill and Hudson in recent years, Oliver has 24 perfect games and eight 800 series over the course of his career. Members of the Nature Coast team are excited to have him on hand.
Palermo averaged a 175 last year while competing in two leagues at Mariner Lanes in Spring Hill. The mother of Franki, her older daughter, Toni, also used to bowl for Nature Coast.
"Oh, it's great. The kids have some guidance now out there," Piechowicz said. "It's been such a relief to not have that part on my shoulders. It was wonderful at the last meet to be able to sit back and be the cheerleader and just give support."
Everyone connected with the Nature Coast program believes there is now momentum for the future. Oliver points toward the junior varsity squad and some of the bowlers poised to take over for the three seniors — Jeff Morgan, Dokoupil and Billy Lummus — who will be departing.
"I've taken a big interest in gearing the JV kids up to be next year's varsity team," Oliver said. "Derek (Martinez), Patrick (Valentine) and Tom (Schiavone) all have a lot of potential."
For now, the focus is still on a potential return to the state finals for this year's varsity groups, and no one thinks that is out of the question.
"The kids are a more cohesive group, and they have really matured over the past year," Piechowicz said. "We're much better organized this time around."