There was more than the usual amount of joy when the Niagara Wheatfield girls bowling team claimed the Section VI overall team championship on Wednesday. That's because few thought it could happen. Even coach Rich Maloney used the phrase "very surprised" to describe the outcome.
"I thought we could have been a dark horse coming in, but it's not expected - trust me," Maloney said. "But the girls battled all day, they made their spares, and kept it together."
The Falcons finished the six-game event at Airport Lanes in Cheektowaga with 5,150 pins, good for a 124-pin victory over Tonawanda and West Seneca. The entire team also heads to the state championships.
The Niagara Wheatfield team consisted of Alexis Chase (1,140 for six games), Marissa Staschak (1,078), Sierra Lassman (1,006), Kelsey Lassman (996), and Shavon Scive (930).
"I am so happy," Sierra Lassman said. "I didn't think our team could do it, but we all bowled so well. I'm so proud of them."
A good start might have been the most important part of the Falcons' victory. They jumped out in front right at the beginning of the tournament with a 910 total, one of only two 900 games by a team on Wednesday.
"We led at the start, but we gave some pins back game by game," Maloney said. "A fast start always helps. It gives you a little bit of a cushion when jump out to a nice lead. It makes the swing a little easier."
"Even when one of us wasn't doing well for one game, we had everyone else pick her up," Staschak said. "It was just amazing."
Niagara Wheatfield took the Class A title as well as the overall crown. Other class winners were Cheektowaga (B), Tonawanda (C), and Frewsburg (D).
The Falcons will be joined on the Section VI team at the state tournament by six individual bowlers. The top three overall finishers were Cameron Spring of Allegany-Limestone (1,162), Mariah Gamel of Springville (1,159), and Katie Ziemba of West Seneca (1,140). The other three state team members finished at the top of a qualifying pool, based on outstanding regular season performance: Britney Grey of Cattaragus/Little Valley (1,102), Brittany McAndrews of Frontier (1,070), and Brionna Thompson of da Vinci (1,064).
The state tournament will be held in Rochester on March 4 and 5. Spring, who was happy to see that someone from one of the small schools of the Southern Tier won the title, will be busy until then.
"If I'm not going to school or working, I'll be practicing," she said.
Gamel, a senior, has been working for six years to reach the state championships. Now she's finally qualified. It's one of those situations in which second or third place feels just about as good as first.
"I've been waiting for this," Gamel said. "Finally - it feels nice. My hard work paid off.
"I was very calm. Everyone was avoiding the scores during the day, so I didn't know much."
Everyone on the Section VI team for the states seemed equally excited. The trip to Rochester was the goal of the many dozens of bowlers taking part in the tournament when the long day started on Wednesday morning, but only a select few made it.
"It means everything," Lassman said. "I've been trying so hard to get there. Now I'm there, and I'm so happy and so proud. My family was here, and we were all crying."
"I've bowled with some of my 'new teammates' " on the Section VI team, "so it's going to be pretty exciting," Gamel said. "My entire family is already planning on coming to watch."
The Section VI boys tournament will be held at the same location on Thursday.