By MIKE MEILER
Niagara Gazette —
It's tough to stay at the top in high school sports. Graduations and very, very limited recruiting keep talent pools pretty equal, making it difficult to maintain any sort of dominance in a league, let alone in a Section or at the state level.
That apparently doesn't matter to Niagara Frontier League bowling, where a quick look at the widespread returning talent and youth likely means good things for the future of what has historically been one of Western New York's top leagues.
Local teams will take to the lanes for the first time this season at 3:30 p.m. today in the NFL Kickoff Tournament at Island Lanes. The tournament will mark the start of the year for the defending girls state champions (Niagara Falls), the defending Section VI boys champions (Niagara-Wheatfield) and last year's Section VI Class B boys champs (Lewiston-Porter).
"The NFL has historically been one of the toughest leagues in the area," N-W coach John Boutet said. "When you go through that schedule, it really sets you up well for success at the end of the year."
Both Wolverine teams had good seasons last year, with the girls winning states for the first time in over a decade and the boys finishing a game out of first place in the NFL.
While the girls team lost last year's top bowler Brooke Seiwel and fellow graduated senior Megan Maurer — both of whom are bowling at Niagara County Community College — they return two top-3 finishers from last year's state tournament in junior Haley Johnson and freshman Angela Gabriele.
The team doesn't lack experience, with four returning juniors (Johnson, Justine Lansberry, Staci Biondi and Kaylee Narkiewicz) and two freshman who bowled on the varsity team last year (Gabriele and Nina Bianco).
The lone senior on the team, Samantha Templeton, doesn't see much starting time but plays an unselfish role coming in off the bench.
"It's tough to tell who's going to be our top girl out of about four or five of them," NF coach Ed Ventry said. "They've all improved to the point where they can definitely make up for (Seiwel and Maurer)."
The boys team lost one of the top threesomes in the league last year in Steve Conklin, Tyler Favorite and Richie Maslen, but will look to make up pins with young bowlers and key returners.
Ventry named freshman Michael Blackburn as an up-and-comer to watch and said that junior Chris Simmons, who bowled as a freshman but took last season off, had the ability to be one of the top boys in the league.
"He could be one of the top guys in the NFL, if not the section," Ventry said. "He's a very strong bowler, and him coming back should definitely help replace some of the guys we lost."
Junior Tristan Michell and seniors Mike Overbeck, David Griffin and Tim Rick will add experience and depth for the Wolverines.
The Falcons' boys team, which tied with Kenmore West for the NFL title and finished seventh in states last season, will have to offset the loss of last year's No. 1, Matt Passero, who was first team All-NFL and had the second highest average in the league in 2011. They'll also miss Brandon Sokol, who served as the sixth man on last year's Section VI champs.
They'll be led this year by a pair of seniors in captain Colten Kitcho and assistant captain Anthony Mangione, who made first team All-NFL last season with a 208 average. Also in the mix will be eighth grader Nate Maloney, who made second team All-NFL with a 206 average as a seventh grader.
"Nate has improved a lot this offseason," Boutet said. "He's a kid that probably bowls upwards of 100 games a week. ... He's a big returner for us. Being second team last year as a seventh grader was a big accomplishment, and I could see big things to come of him."
Rounding out the starters for the Falcons will be Kitcho's brother, sophmore Collin, Sam Mattheus and Dan Ball.
"We did lose a few guys, but we also have a few guys we were able to bring up that we've seen improve," Boutet said. "If you lose two, but the other six improve, you should be able to offset those losses."
On the girls' side, Boutet said he expects that this year's team, which features six seniors, will have a very good year.
Team captain Vienna Mills, who's been on the varsity team since seventh grade, averages a 200 and has been all-league the past three seasons. Assistant captain Taylor Klis has a 180 average, and sophomore returnee Julia Brown, also a starter since seventh grade, boasts a 190 average.
They'll be aided by seniors Rachel Szeliba and Kyra Reiker, as well as eight grader Marissa Spaschak, who started last season in seventh grade.
"Hopefully this is their year," Boutet said. "Having six seniors, they're going to be tough to replace, but at the same time, those up-and-coming kids should be around for a long time."
If there were proof of how tough the NFL is, it would be found in the Lew-Port boys team, which finished below .500 in league play last year but went on to win the Class B sectional title.
Everyone from last year's boys team returns, including captain Josh Martin, fellow seniors Evan Waterstrat and Seb Passanese, and junior Tyler Roskwitalski, who led the team in average last year.
Coach Dave Sicoli said his team's goals would be to finish above .500, compete better in league play and defend their sectional crown.
The boys team will start a different title defense today. They won the 2011 Kickoff Tournament.
Last year's girls team finished .500 and lost three seniors, but returning captain Amber Wade and fellow senior Kristie Peters should bring stability despite the losses.
Also returning is sophomore Alexis Wade, who qualified for states as an eighth grader but sat out last season.
"She's back with a vengeance this year," Sicoli said. "In her first practice, she bowled a 748 series and completely wowed us."
"The key is playing in the tough NFL," added Sicoli, who's in his fifth year coaching at Lew-Port. "The tough NFL schedule prepares us for sectionals. Even if we don't qualify for states, Tyler, Josh and Alexis could all make states."
The Vikings finished toward the bottom of the NFL on both the boys and girls sides last season, but neither team lost any bowlers from last season. Senior-laden squads on both sides could provide an advantage in experience and a boost in the standings.
"Everybody lost seniors last year, and I have everybody coming back," coach Craig Davis said.
Leading the boys team will be returning seniors Tyler Mondoux, Sam Colao and A.J. Brink, as well as junior Quinn Corrao, who averaged a 204 last year. Also returning to the team after a one-year absence is senior Joe Torregrossa, who Davis said might end up with the highest average on the team this season.
The girls team will be led by senior Aurora De, who averaged a 162 last year. Also returning are senior Lauren Cook and junior Lindsey Spiker.