It's called the Super Bowl of junior bowling, and among the 4,000-plus top amateur boys and girls who descended upon the Detroit area in July were three bowlers from Plainville's Lessard Lanes.
Sean Buck of Southington, Justin Giano of Plainville and Briana Provenzano of Bristol made their first trip to the country’s premier junior tournament, the 2019 Junior Gold Championships.
The locals faced the United States’ best young bowlers over four days of competition. Each exceeded expectations.
Buck, a 12-year old who will enter seventh grade at Kennedy Middle School this fall, finished 45th out of 262 boys in the 12U Division. He averaged 164 over 16 games, missing the top-38 cut to advance by 26 pins.
Giano finished 115th out of 717 bowlers in the highly competitive 15U Division. The Plainville High School sophomore averaged 176 and failed to advance among the top 103 in his division by a mere 21 pins.
Provenzano finished 106th in the 12U girls division with a 131 average.
“I was expecting to come in the top 100, but as the days went on, I really thought top 50, and I achieved that goal,” Buck said. “To be in the top 50 is pretty amazing. I surprised myself.”
Buck, Giano and Provenzano each qualified to represent Connecticut at the Junior Gold Championships by winning a state qualifying tournament last year. As winners, each were invited to make the 700-mile trek to Michigan.
Like most of the 24 other qualifiers from Connecticut, they and their families loaded up their vans and headed west for the week-long national tournament for boys and girls ages 7 to 20.
It was the first time Lessard Lanes had sent three junior bowlers to the Junior Gold Championships.
"We were certainly following all of them," said Marcel Lessard, who has been the owner and operator of Lessard Lanes for three years. "It's great to see some of our kids do so well. It’s also nice to see each progress like they have.
“Who knows where they'll end up? But when it clicks, it's nice to see," Lessard added.
Buck, Giano and Provenzano are each active members in Lessard's junior bowling programs. All three have “coaches” who volunteer their time during Saturday morning Coaches’ Corner sessions prior to the alley’s junior league.
The trio currently bowls on Monday night in a junior league that features nearly 50 youngsters. All three started to get serious about their craft during junior leagues at Lessard Lanes this past winter.
Buck’s average has improved 50 pins in a year and he now carries a 164 league average. Giano has seen his average soar to 204.
Buck, Giano and Provenzano have been competing in state-level events for less than two years, which makes their accomplishments in Detroit all the more impressive. Some of their competitors were Junior Gold veterans, having advanced to the national tournament multiple times.
The local threesome competes in Junior Bowling Tour tournaments in the tri-state area. Those tournaments feature 40 or 50 bowlers, so what each experienced in Detroit was on a completely different level.
The host state of Michigan alone sent hundreds of junior bowlers to Detroit. So did bowling hotbeds such at Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois. In all, 4,035 junior bowlers filled Eastern Michigan University's area for the tournament's opening ceremonies. All 50 states were represented, as were Canada and Puerto Rico and the families of Americans stationed in Germany.
The enormity of the event hit Giano and Buck as they marched across the stage to music as spotlights filled the arena on the eve of the first day of competition.
Opening ceremonies, “were just too much,” said Buck. “All those kids: It was just crazy.”
“I didn’t realize how many bowlers were going until those opening ceremonies,” Giano said. “It actually made me a little mad, seeing how many [bowlers] some states brought, especially Michigan, which brought the whole state.
“My expectations were to qualify [for the next round],” Giano added. “But I was very nervous. I didn’t think I was going to qualify, seeing how good those kids were. But after the third day, I was getting used to [the sport shot] and I wasn’t nervous anymore … I want to go back next year. I had a lot of fun. It was a fun experience.”
Both Buck and Giano use a two-handed style made popular by world No. 1 bowler Jason Belmonte. In Michigan, both Buck and Giano bowled against the sons of professional player Wes Malott, who has won 10 times on the PBA Tour and owns one major title, the 2012-13 U.S. Open.
Malott's 15-year-old son Jordan, who bowled a 299 on the same pair of lanes as Giano on Day 2, was the No. 1 seed heading into the bracket finals. Malott's younger brother Camden advanced in Buck's division.
Just how competitive were the Junior Gold Championships? Neither Malott won his division. Camden finished 22nd, while Jordan lost both of his matches in the bracket finals.
It was Jordan Malott's fifth Junior Gold tournament, and he wasn't alone when it came to experience on the national level. Bowling was in the blood of several boys and girls in Detroit, which is why several college scouts and coaches could be seen in the stands.
Bowling on various "sport patterns," Buck, Giano and Provenzano were introduced to a new level of bowling. The challenging oil patterns were different at each alley, and weren't made public to competitors until after the tournament ended. So making various adjustments, not only daily but from game to game, was the key to success.
“It was really exciting, but hard. I thought to myself, ‘This is tougher than at home,’” Provenzano said. “There were some really good bowlers out there. It felt good to be there. I had fun. Hopefully, I can go back.”
Buck, Giano and Provenzano were each allowed one 40-minute practice session at each alley they would compete on later in the week. Notes were taken, different balls were used, and all three were taken aback a bit when they saw the competition.
When Giano showed up for his first practice session, he walked into the alley with four bowling balls. Some of his competitors had an "arsenal" of 10 or more balls, along with tools that not only altered the surface of the ball, but drill sets to use if further alterations were needed.
When Buck saw what he was up against?
“I was honestly scared that I was going to do something wrong or mess up and they were going to get mad at me,” Buck said. “I was like, ‘Please, don’t let anything go wrong. Just let me practice, do my thing, and don’t let anything go wrong.’”
Turns out, Buck could do no wrong. Buck would use either his reactive or urethane bowling ball, depending on the lane conditions, and never fell out of the top 100. He was 65th after Day 1 and stood 25th after two days of competing against boys whose years of experience belied their age.
As one uncle from Virginia said about his 11-year-old nephew, “He’s been bowling since he could pick up a bowling ball.”
Starting 39th on the final day of qualifying, Buck was in contention to move into the advancers round after rolling a “clean” 206 in his second game on Day 4. But his 15th and 16th games of the tournament proved costly as he fell out of the top 38 after games of 115 and 139.
Giano, meanwhile, rallied from a slow start the first two days, moving into contention to advance after finding himself in 379th place after Day 2.
Giano's rally included back-to-back games of 213 and 219 on Day 3. A strong performance on Day 3 put Giano 70 spots out of advancing. But despite another game over 200 on Day 4, Giano missed advancing as one of the top 103 bowlers in his division.
Said Giano’s mother, Julie, “Justin had the best time ever and he can finally say he loves a sport.”