Niagara Gazette — CHEEKTOWAGA — "889." That's was what was quietly spoken among spectators. It was the number of pins the Niagara Falls High School girls bowling team needed to drop in order to win the Section VI championship at Thruway Lanes in Cheektowaga Friday.
The Wolverines reached that number and then some, knocking down 940 pins in their sixth and final game to overtake North Tonawanda and punch their ticket to Long Island for the state championship.
It capped off a long day that began with North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls in first and second place, respectively, after one game. By the time all schools finished their third game and headed into the lunch break, the Lady Jacks remained in first by a slim lead but Niagara Falls had fallen to third.
It was when the afternoon games got rolling that Niagara Falls found itself back in the hunt.
"They were awesome the last game, actually the last two games," said Niagara Falls bowling coach Ed Ventry. "They just don't give up. They know that if they just keep doing their thing, eventually they'll get there."
Angela Gabriele led Niagara Falls bowlers in the opening game with a 234. She surged late in her opening game, rolling a strike in the ninth frame then turning it into a turkey with two more strikes to open her 10th frame, finishing with a final roll that dropped all but one pin.
The sophomore also delivered two big games in the afternoon session, rolling a 214 in the fourth game and a 201 in the sixth and final game.
"We normally don't worry about the morning half because it kind of just determines where we are, standings wise," said Gabriele, who also finished the Niagara Frontier League season with its top average at 206.19. "The second half is when you just buckle down and make sure we get the job done."
Fellow Wolverine sophomore Luxsurie Sistrunk had the hottest start among the Niagara Falls bowlers, rolling five straight strikes to open her first game. She then had an uncharacteristic misfire in the sixth frame, when the ball slipped from her grip and went straight into the gutter. She dropped seven pins to finish that frame then recovered nicely with a strike in the seventh frame, on her way to an opening score of 186.
"I just have to take my time and get a restart of what I have to do," Sistrunk said about how she overcomes setbacks. "I rethink everything and I have my team behind me, so even if I were to fall again I have them to pick me up."
North Tonawanda's Cassidy Powers had the hottest start to the tournament, rolling seven consecutive strikes to open her first game. In the eighth frame, she again placed the ball in the right spot but as the pins fell the 7-pin wobbled but just wouldn't drop. She finished with nine pins downed that frame but followed up with a strike. She finished in the 10th frame with a spare and a strike to roll a 247.
She finished the day with 1,192 pins dropped, the second-best individual result. While Powers' team will miss out on the States, she will represent Section VI as an individual.
"When you start off on a few strikes, it really does give you the confidence that you're going to finish the day strong and hope that your team will finish with you," Powers said.
What helped her stay strong and earn an individual spot at the States?
"I think just the experience of winning last year and coming in first, and then coming into today knowing I had to live up to what I did last year, was my driving force," she said.
Powers' coach, Bill Rohring, couldn't hide the heartbreak of watching an early lead slip away toward a second-place team finish.
"The afternoon session turns into survival instead of bowling," Rohring said. "Everybody gets tired, the lane conditions become terrible, the team that survives the best ... is the team that wins.
"Niagara Falls has been outstanding in doing that all season long."
Also earning a trip to States as an individual was Lew-Port's Alexis Wade, who was unsure if she had qualified until she finally got the word from her coach.
"I was waiting around outside with my friends. I was really nervous because I know I didn't bowl my best today," Wade said. "Then he came out and said 'you're in.'"
Among the other schools taking part, Niagara-Wheatfield went into the lunch break in seventh place, 249 pins behind North Tonawanda. The Lady Falcons slipped to tenth after the second session. More heartbreaking for the team was team member Julia Brown missing out on qualifying for States by just five pins.
Tonawanda High School found itself in 19th place after the morning games but at the end of the day climbed to a respectable ninth place finish.
When it was over, when Niagara Falls scored more than enough pins to take the Section VI championship, there were plenty of cheers among their families and supporters. There were just as many tears, as the emotion of the moment set in.
"We knew it was going to be tough because NT has been one of our closest competitors all year," said Gabriele. "But I think we really wanted this bad because four of our seniors are graduating. It's four girls we've been with for the past four years, so we wanted to make it and make sure we could have that last moment together."
Those seniors — Hailey Johnson, Staci Biondi, Kaylee Narkiewicz and Justine Lansberry — will have yet another moment with their younger teammates when the state tournament opens in West Babylon, NY on March 1.