SOUTHINGTON – Surreal.
That is the word that described Sean Buck’s run last week at the Junior Gold youth national bowling tournament in Muskegon, Mich.
Buck, a 15-year-old incoming sophomore at Southington High School, finished 20th in the U15 boys division at Junior Gold. The top finisher among New England youth bowlers and fifth among bowlers from the East Coast, Buck competed against the country’s top 630 bowlers in his age group over five days.
Buck never fell outside the top 15 until his final placement Friday. He was second after the first day of competition and entered Friday’s Advancers Final round in 11th place.
Buck ultimately missed advancing to Friday night’s match play by 27 pins. Players’ pin totals were carried over each day.
Buck was 11th after Day 2 and moved back up to ninth Wednesday. He finished the fourth and final day of qualifying Thursday in 14th place.
As one of the 90 bowlers to make the cut and move into Friday morning’s Advancers Round, Buck started the long day of bowling strong with games of 230 and 209. He finished the morning round with a five-game block of 966 to move into 11th place.
The top 56 bowlers then came back Friday afternoon for another five games. Again, Buck put himself into position to move into the final 16 with a fourth game of 191. But in what would be his final game of the grueling week, Buck slipped to 151.
“It really showed how good of a bowler I am,” Buck said. “Being from Connecticut, not many good bowlers come out of this state.”
“So, when I was producing scores that were even with, or better than the elite youth bowlers, it showed I belonged with the elite bowlers in the country,” Buck added.
Even in missing the match-play portion of the tournament, Buck’s final five-game block of 875 pins in the Advancers Final round bested No. 1 seed Keegan Alexander of Texas by four pins.
Alexander, who earned the No. 1 seed with 5,449 pins, would go on to lose in the televised semifinals to eventual champion Landin Jordan of Ohio. Jordan, who along with Alexander are teammates on Junior Team USA, won his second straight Junior Gold title by beating Kai Strothers (New Jersey).
“Bowling with (guys like Jordan) was pretty surreal,” Buck said. “I hear about these kids all the time; and I watch these guys all the time (on YouTube). To know that I’m of their skill level is pretty awesome.”
“I just had to keep my composure and focus on my game,” Buck continued. “I couldn’t control what they did. I just threw my shots and they threw theirs.”
“I had a very good mental game going into (Junior Gold),” Buck added. “I really wouldn’t let one bad shot affect me. I just had to let the bad shots go and ace the next shot to the best of my ability.”
Over the course of five days, Buck “aced” enough shots to knock over 5,092 pins. The teenager from Plantsville who bowls out of Lessard Lanes in Plainville, averaged 195.85 over 26 games on a variety of USBC-sanctioned sport patterns.
While his first-day total of 929 gave him a cushion, Buck made his biggest move on Wednesday.
After games of 183 and 175, Buck rolled back-to-back games of 245 ad 244 to vault into ninth place. His four-game block of 847 was the sixth-highest total Wednesday.
Buck took the advice of his coach Kevin Gemmell to start Game 3 about 10 to 15 boards (10-15 inches) to the left. Buck said he also completely changed his strategy over the next two games. It was a decision that set Buck up for success.
“It was probably one of the best zone changes that I’ve ever made,” Buck said of his decision to change his ball speed and angle into the pins. “I had a line after practice, and if that didn’t work, I’d maybe move one or two inches. It was a pretty drastic move. I had to make the shot to make it work.”
“After Day 2, there was a bit of stress; I hadn’t posted the best scores (Tuesday),” Buck added. “But I knew the next two days were going to be my best two days for sure.”
Buck’s intuition was correct. He followed his Wednesday performance with another solid four-game block of 766 on Thursday that included a 225 in his 16 th game of the week. His four-day qualifying total of 3,551 pins landed him comfortably within the top 90 bowlers who advanced.
“I came into (Junior Gold) with the goal of making the first cut (of top 90 bowlers),” Buck said. “But after Day 4, looking at my placement, I thought, ‘Maybe I can make a run.’ And we definitely went deep into the standings.”
“It definitely passed any expectations. I had no idea I’d be second after Day 1, stay in the top 15 and then finish 20th.”
This was Buck’s third trip to Junior Gold. He was 45th as a 12-year-old three years ago in Detroit, and after COVID-19 cancelled Junior Gold in 2020, Buck finished 121st in the U15 Boys division last year in Indianapolis.
He arrived in Muskegon with what seemed at the time a realistic if not modest goal of finishing in the top 90 after winning three different Connecticut state youth championships in 2022. A two-time Pepsi state champion (he won the Pepsi state title in 2019 as a 12-year-old), Buck had also shown the ability to post high scores, shooting a perfect 300 game as a 13-year-old in 2020.
With Junior Gold scheduled to return to Indianapolis in 2023, Buck now moves up to the competitive U18 boys division, which featured the nation’s top 1,208 bowlers last week. Buck’s four-day total after qualifying this year, however, would have placed him 83rd among the U18 boys.
“(Last week) showed all the hard work I put in has set me up for the future,” Buck said. “I want to be a professional bowler; be on TV and everything.”
“I just want to be the best I can be,” added Buck. “I have big dreams, and I know you have to put the work in to get there. Eventually the big rewards will come.”
Last week, Buck wasn’t alone in advancing to Friday’s action.
Prior to Junior Gold, Buck was part of the New England U15 team that finished 10 th at the USA Bowling national team competition in Grand Rapids, Mich. Two teammates on that five-person New England team, 15-year-old Justin Goodspeed (Massachusetts) and 12-year-old Anna Anthony (Connecticut), also made it to the Junior Gold Advancers Round.
Goodspeed would finish 79th. Anthony, competing in the U12 girls division, was the No. 1 seed after four days of qualifying before losing twice Friday in match-play. She bowls with Buck at Lessard Lanes.
Also representing Lessard Lanes at Junior Gold were Briana Provenzano (162nd in U15 girls), Joey Stango (179th in U18 boys), Jacob Stango (207 th in U12 boys), Marykate Stango (252nd In U15 girls), Tay Bernier (391 st in U15 Boys) and Jeff Wasieleuski (1,145 in U18 boys).