Before she started driving to school, St. Charles North senior Katie Gustafson loathed lugging her bowling ball to her locker.
Forget maneuvering the bag into a confined space without smashing her notebooks and lunch. That was a breeze compared to the apparent emotional load she carried.
“Even just myself, I was more embarrassed about it,” Gustafson said. “I’d just be walking down the hallway with my bowling ball bag, and everyone’s like, ‘What’s that?’ and I wouldn’t want to tell them, ‘Oh, it’s a bowling ball.’ ”
Years passed, Gustafson obtained her driver’s license and before long she stored the ball in her trunk. That was just a matter of convenience, though. These days, like the rest of the North Stars, she can’t imagine holding another afternoon accessory.
“Now it’s a just like a part of me. It’s like my thing. That’s just how I identify myself,” Gustafson said. “Now people are like,’ What’s that?’ and I’m like,’Oh, it’s my bowling ball.’ They’re actually generally interested.”
North opened its fourth season of IHSA boys and girls bowling last month with its biggest girls turnout yet. Where they once scrapped for participation, the North Stars easily fill varsity and JV lineups.
The boys team advanced to the state tournament for the first time last season, while junior Isaac Marshall delivered the program’s first perfect game in a tournament at Rockford this past weekend.
Boys or girls, bowlers take the traction where they can get it. Lately, it also has arrived in the form of spectators – even away from the team’s home lanes, St. Charles Bowl.
“We’ve had a few teachers come, but it’s a lot more students, as well,” sophomore Lynn Byers said. “They participate in our chants we do as a team and we let them feel included.”
Camaraderie long has been a backbone of bowling, and certainly is prevalent among the North Stars.
Byers’ parents, Cheryl and Gary, got their relationship on a roll after meeting at an alley. Shrugging off a recent surgery, Gustafson’s grandfather joined a league to become just the latest family member to talk tenpins with Gustafson at various get-togethers.
At school, upcoming bowling events scroll on the TV system like the rest of the winter sports, and bowling updates or advances crack the morning announcements, too. That’s a start for a program that’s eager to accelerate its growth, along with players’ averages. Byers (176.29), Ashley England (173) and Bobbi Jo Buhlman (163.20) led the team entering the week.
“When you have success, people want to come watch. I mean, just about everybody knows somebody who’s bowling in a league as an adult,” North girls coach Lindsay Madej said. “And so because of that familiarity, it’ll come around that people will start to take us seriously.”
Gustafson agrees, and already has seen plenty of progress from her freshman year, North’s inaugural season.
Three years ago, the otherwise involved student – a National Honor Society member, track sprinter and North’s yearbook editor, among other extra-curriculars – added bowling to her profile.
She joined with a friend on a whim and aimed to break 100 more often than not. Already this season, Gustafson has rolled a career-best 637 series against Neuqua Valley.
Her afternoon at Aurora’s Parkside Lanes included a 256 in the third game, the second-highest score of her career.
“Me and my friend just started to join for something to do, and I then I ended up really liking it,” Gustafson said. “So that’s why I’ve stuck with it, got my own ball. I’ve improved a lot and it’s something I really enjoy.”
In another few days, Gustafson expects her third new bowling ball in four high school Christmases.
You can bet it won’t stay under the tree for long.
• Kevin Druley is a sports writer for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.