WEST HAZLETON — Hazleton Area’s bowling team entered the Eastern Regional in Lancaster rated 14th among the 28 entries. That meant the Cougars needed to do something special to advance out of the qualifying round.
“Never did I expect what the team did next,” coach Shawn Evans said. “The kids did a phenomenal job. The way they were talking among themselves, I knew we were getting into the final.”
Despite their average ranking, the Cougars were exceptional in Lancaster, moving to second place after just three games and finishing the qualifier third.
“I knew before the season that there was something special with this group,” Evans said. “Every girl participated in this tournament. Everyone gave 150 percent. They’re rooting each other on, cheering for each other. We’re the loudest team in the house.
“That energy, that support from the boys team and from the parents, it was unbelievable. Other teams were looking down the lanes in bewilderment.”
They entered the championship bracket and rolled over everyone to reach the final, where Penn Manor finally topped them. By then, though, Hazleton Area had clinched a spot in the state championships this weekend in Pittsburgh.
“This is awesome,” said Meghan Lizbinski, the lone sophomore on a team of upperclassmen. “Before the season, I thought we would have a big year. But I didn’t know we’d make states.”
“It was exciting,” junior Aleigha Sokolowski said. “I knew we could do it, but I don’t know how to describe it.”
Well, one way to describe it is historic. This will be the first Hazleton Area girls team to reach the state tourney and the first girls team from a Wyoming Valley Conference member school, though only Hazleton Area and Berwick have programs currently. And those two schools have had to be scrappy in simply maintaining their competitive level.
Both schools were part of a scholastic bowling league with a handful of teams from District 4, including Central Columbia, Danville and Milton. But when the Pa. Heartland Athletic Conference was formed in 2008, bylaws formed a PHAC bowling league and did not allow for auxiliary memberships for non-PHAC schools. There was no place to play.
“We were suddenly independent,” Evans said. “We started competing more with Berwick and Columbia-Montour Vo-Tech (the other schools dropped from the bowling league). We’d go to tournaments and try to find teams to schedule.
“Now, we’re facing Reading, Berks Catholic, Pope John Paul. We had a team from the Lewistown area contact us to get on our schedule. We have teams coming after us now to schedule matches.”
Two years ago, Hazleton Area’s squad nearly made this the second trip to states. The Cougars came up six pins short at regionals, also held in Lancaster that year. Last season, Hazleton Area was 14th at regionals, but the lineup gained valuable experience.
Six current bowlers were part of the 14th-place finish in Reading. Having that opportunity played a role in preparing the Cougars for their entry into the spotlight in Lancaster two weekends ago.
“When I first got into the building, I could feel some butterflies,” junior Miranda Rish said of regionals. “But once we started bowling, they settled down. I’ve never been to Pittsburgh. I’m so excited for this trip.
“As soon as you get up on the lane, you are so focused on what you have to do,” added Kelly Maloney, another junior.
Now the girls are ready for their shot at history. The Hazleton Area boys team won a state championship in 2008 and these girls have already shown they have a confidence that goes beyond any rankings or past accomplishments.
“This year, when we started practice, I could see the desire burning in them,” Evans said. “I told them they could go all the way this year. (At regionals, Governor Mifflin coach) Dana Brown said he had never seen our girls so focused. That made my day and made the girls’ day.
“We had the superintendent (Francis Antonelli) and high school principal (Rocco Petrone) here to receive our trophy,” Evans added after presenting the regional award to the administrators. “To have them come and support our program is huge.”
The next step is huge as well, but the Cougars are prepared to make a splash at states.