What better way to celebrate the return of big-time professional bowling to Western New York than to have a local hero steal the show?
Ryan Ciminelli, the 19-year-old standout from Cheektowaga, not only topped the amateurs to gain a berth in this week's GEICO Classic at AMF Thruway Lanes, he beat all the pros, too, including some former Tour winners.
Ciminelli averaged 243 over his seven games in the Tour Qualifier to grab one of the six places at stake on Wednesday. His total was 1,701.
"I was nervous right up to the last fill ball," said Ciminelli, who really didn't have any reason to be edgy. He beat the next best amateur, Ken Muscato of Canandaigua, by a comfy 80 pins. The top pro, veteran Bob Learn Jr. of Erie, Pa., was 34 pins behind with 1,667.
Ciminelli, the 2004 Teen Masters champion and an All-American last year at Erie Community College, knows the Thruway lanes well. Until recently he worked at the Walden Avenue facility. He recently gave up his job there to compete in more weekend tournaments.
Also, he returned to ECC after taking a semester off.
Ciminelli didn't enter the qualifier simply to be the top amateur. He was shooting to be at the top of the leader boards at the end of the day.
"If you don't think that way, you shouldn't be out here," Ciminelli said.
Ciminelli's best game was his fifth, when he started with seven strikes, left a 7-pin in the eighth, then struck out for 279. His other games were 214, 239, 268, 238, 247 and 216.
The 279 pushed him into the overall lead for good.
Besides Learn, a five-time tour winner, other qualifiers were: Eugene McCune (Munster, Ind.) with 1,633, Dennis Welshans (Watsontown, Pa.) with 1,630, and former Tour titlists Dennis Horan Jr. (Temecula, Calif.) with 1,625 and Lonnie Waliczek (Wichita, Kan.) with 1,601.
The qualifiers join the 57 exempt pros and Liz Johnson of Cheektowaga for today's two seven-game qualifying blocks. Half the field will qualify for the round of 32 in match play Friday morning.
The final four after three rounds on Friday will bowl in the televised (ESPN, 12:30) championship finals on Sunday.
Several hundred turned out for Wednesday's qualifier. Good turnouts are expected for today's two sessions (11 a.m. and 6 p.m.) to see how the five Western New York pros -- Brad Angelo, Tom Baker, Joe Ciccone, Jack Jurek and Johnson -- fare.
In addition, all of the Denny's PBA Tour current big names will be here, including Walter Ray Williams Jr., Pete Weber and Tommy Jones, one of the "Young Guns" who are becoming the Tour's bright new faces.
Jones won the U.S. Open last week in North Brunswick, N.J., for his first career major. However, it was the South Carolinian's third title this season. He also won at Tulsa and the Bayer Atlanta Classic.
Another two-time winner who will be on hand is Jason Couch.
Other 2005-06 season winners in the field are: Wes Malott, Mike Machuga, Mike Scroggins, Patrick Allen, Mike Wolfe, Brian Himmler, Ritchie Allen and Brian Walsh.
West Virginia Open champion Sean Rash didn't make it, however. He finished tied for 49th in Wednesday's qualifier.