Dan Kaplan, the Section VI chairman for boys bowling, feels a little wistful as the championships for the section and state approach. He knows it's something of the end of an era for the sport locally.
"Nate Maloney is the headline," Kaplan said about the Niagara-Wheatfield senior bowler. "He might as well have been a coach, he's been around so long. I've known him forever. He's a great kid and a top bowler.
"We want the best kids representing us at the states, and he's been one of them."
Maloney was part of Section VI's group in the state tournament as a seventh-grader as part of the N-W team. He missed out on states in eighth grade, but returned as an individual as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Maloney seems to be peaking at the right time. He has raised his average to almost 222 per game.
Maloney will try to reach the states one more time when the Section VI championships are held at Airport Lanes in Cheektowaga next week. The girls lead off on Wednesday, Feb. 15, while the boys will take to the lanes a day later.
Kaplan, the athletic director at Alden, can remember only one other local bowler who was so good for so long.
"There was Melanie Hannan," he said about the 2013 Maryvale graduate. "I loved her to death. I was so proud of her, I felt like I should walk her across the stage at graduation. At Maryvale, she had a 279 in her last game. I don't think Cheektowaga has lost to Maryvale since she left."
How does someone like Maloney get that good for so long? Starting at a young age helps.
"He's been doing it since he was three and able to throw the ball," said Rich Maloney, Nate's father. "At six, seven, eight, he'd grab the ball and go throw it. People would marvel at it. I don't know how much time he put into it at that age; he was just fooling around."
It was natural for Nate to take an interest in bowling. Rich runs the pro shop at Rapids Bowling Center in Niagara Falls, and now coaches the Falcons.
Ed Ventry, the girls bowling chairman of Section VI and the coach at Niagara Falls, had an up-close look at young Nate. He liked what he saw.
"I've known Nate since he was a little kid," Ventry said. "He was a Niagara Falls kid in sixth grade, but he never bowled for me. When he became eligible to bowl at this level, he went to Niagara-Wheatfield. He lived right around the corner from me. I would have loved to have had him."
You might guess that Nate is one of those kids who for whatever reason has a single-minded drive for success in bowling - the type who never has a tan because he's inside a bowling center year-round. And if you did guess that, you'd be wrong.
"He only picks up the ball at tryouts in November, and puts it away after the states," Rich Maloney said. "Then he picks up the lacrosse stick, the game he loves so much. He got into it as a young teen. He plays box lacrosse in Canada, and field lacrosse here."
As for the future, Kaplan has worked with future professional bowlers in the past. One time he had both John Szczerbinski and Ryan Ciminelli on the same team in the state tournament. Kaplan didn't have to do much coaching with that group - those bowlers matter-of-factly went out and clobbered the competition.
"I don't know if Nate wants to be at the next level," Kaplan said. "Those two were just bowlers. When Ryan was an eighth grader, he said to a teacher, 'I want to be a pro bowler.' "
It's the present that matters now, though, and the bowling changes at this time of the year. Not only are the best bowlers in the region competing in the tournament, but the lane conditions have changed from the regular season.
"They shoot on a 'house shot,' and some jump out at that," Kaplan said. "Then all of a sudden at the sectionals, they have to deal with 'sport shots.' That separates the men from the boys. Sometimes bowlers that led their team get out there and they struggle because they haven't bowled on sport shots. We offer practice time on the lanes at Airport, and tell them what the pattern is going to be."
The pressure is different now. It doesn't take much to miss the pocket by a fraction of an inch and knock down eight or nine pins instead of 10, and nerves can cause that small difference. The best bowlers in the regular season are placed in a special pool for purposes of determining at least three of the six state qualifiers, as regular season performance is rewarded that way. But you still have to earn your way to Rochester for the states on March 4 and 5.
We picked up a bit of a clue as to who is bowling well on Saturday when the Roy Sommer Tournament was held in Tonawanda. Dom Germano of Kenmore East, Jon Kurdziel of Tonawanda, Matt Bellavia of Niagara Falls and Dan Zahlhas of Lancaster all made the all-tournament team.
The list of contenders, though, is longer than that. Cortez Bradberry of Niagara Falls carries a 213 average, second in the Niagara Frontier League to Maloney. Dominic Germano of Kenmore East averages 203. Tom Klenke (210) and Coltin Little of Orchard Park (211) and Andrew Burckhalter of West Seneca West (217) are enjoying fine seasons. Joe Peters of Williamsville South carries a 212 average and Aaron Simonds of Tonawanda is at 208.
In the team competition, the usual suspects all have a chance of earning a ticket to Rochester. Frontier, Orchard Park and Clarence finished 1-2-3 last year, and they will be in the mix. Clarence has four bowlers averaging at least 196. Tonawanda, West Seneca West and Niagara Falls all should be around the top of the standings when the six-game event is finished on Thursday afternoon. Niagara-Wheatfield is rated as something of a sleeper for team honors.
On the girls side, the list of contenders for the team championship is similar to the one for the boys. Clarence has stepped up this season, but defending champion Orchard Park has almost everyone back from the 2016 team that reached the state tournament. West Seneca West shouldn't be discounted.
Individually, Section VI is having a good season among the girls. Several are averaging around 200 this season, and the ECIC is particularly deep. Danielle Milo of Orchard Park (213 average) is back to defend her individual title, and Sarah Radt of the Quakers (192) hopes to improve on her second-place finish. Madelyn Jensen would have joined her Orchard Park teammates, but she graduated early.
Elsewhere, Brittany McAndrews (205) has had a solid year for Frontier. Rachel Wagner of Depew (203) tied for fifth in the sectionals last year. Marissa Staschak of Niagara-Wheatfield is easily the best bowler in the NFL, averaging 208 - 18 pins ahead of anyone else in that league. McAndrews and Staschak bowled well in the Roy Sommer Tournament, as did Katie Ziemba of West Seneca, Hannah Ellman of Dunkirk and Marina McClure of Tonawanda (201).
The best girls from the Southern Tier are Britney Grey of Cattaragus/Little Valley (211) and Cameron Spring of Allegany-Limestone (202). The schools are broken into four divisions in the Section VI tournament, but it's difficult for schools from Classes C and D to make the state final. The problem is enrollment.
"We have 2,000 kids in Niagara Falls," Vestry said. "How does a school with 600 compete with that?"
However, help is on the way in that area.
"Next year, we're going to large schools and small schools for boys and girls," Kaplan said. "The cut-off is 600 students. A team like Cheektowaga, which has no seniors, is going to be a very strong team next year. They are right below the cutoff. Tonawanda and Fredonia will be good too."