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George Warren couldn't be happier about the success of the Professional Bowlers Association SplitFire Spark Plug Open in Erie, Pa.

The main attraction is Saturday's finals in an arena venue at the Erie Civic Center -- the brainchild of Warren, who co-chairs the tournament with his wife, Nancy.

"We had over 4,000 spectators last year and the show was great," Warren said. "This year, the acoustics will be better. ABC (which telecasts the finals) has done their homework and there'll be more lighting. Our (ticket) sales are over 4,000 and with the tournament under way, we expect to reach 5,000."

For the first time in the PBA's five years in Erie, a pretournament qualifier was held to accommodate an overflow of entries. "We have room for 160 players and more than 220 were entered (by last week)," Warren said. "That's impressive."

Arena finals have been overwhelmingly endorsed by the touring pros for the enthusiastic atmosphere they create.

"And it's opened up the market," Warren said. "The players want to come here.

"I was hoping this is what it would do," he added. "Sayville (the Long Island site of the PBA tournament two weeks ago) got a major sponsor with Budweiser (with an arena final).

"Professional bowling is like a hidden sport. It's amazing how much money is out there. I hope this will open the eyes of major corporations. Maybe they'll see they're missing the idea and there could be a place for them to support bowling."

This is SplitFire's second year as a sponsor and AMF has agreed again to provide the four lanes and pinsetting equipment in the civic center.

Lefty Dennis Horan of San Diego is the defending champion in what has turned out to be a California monopoly. Jess Stayrook (San Diego) won Erie's first Flagship Open in 1991, followed by Eric Forkel (Chatsworth) in 1992 and Walter Ray Williams Jr. (Stockton) in 1993.

Horan said he has been looking forward to his return.

"Last season, I had a few cashes but I wasn't too concerned about it. I was still on a high (after winning $39,000 in Erie) and I did well in some regionals.

"I've had five top 24s (24 make the cut for match play). I've been seventh, ninth, 10th, 11th and 19th so I've had opportunities and I've been close.

"I just need something to kick me over the edge and Erie might be it."

First place again will be worth at least $39,000 in the $180,000 event.

Also entered is Buffalo's PBA connection of seven-time winner Tom Baker, Jack Jurek -- who won his first title last week in Connecticut -- and rookie Brian Eaton.

Reigning player of the year Norm Duke, two-time player of the year Amleto Monacelli, 22-time champion Mike Aulby, all-time leading money winner Pete Weber and Erie's local favorites Bob Learn Jr. and Ron Palombi are also expected to compete.

Tickets for the stepladder finals will be on sale through Saturday with no cutoff. "I'll find a way to get everybody in," Warren said.

For more information, call 814-899-9855.


WHAT: Professional Bowlers Association SplitFire Spark Plug Open.

WHERE: Eastway Lanes, Erie, Pa. Take the New York Thruway west to Exit 10 (Harbor Creek). Right on Depot Road to a "T" intersection. Left on Route 20 for four miles to lanes at 4110 Buffalo Road.

Civic Center -- Thruway west to Exit 6 (Peach Street). Right on Peach to 8th Street. Right on French Street. Civic Center is at 809 French. Parking ramp is across the street.
SCHEDULE (TICKETS): Eastway Lanes -- Today: first round squads ($5), 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with second round ($7) from 4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Thursday: third round cut to 24 ($5), 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m, with fourth round, start of match play ($8), 6:45 p.m. to 10:45 p.m.; Friday: fifth round ($8), 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., with sixth round end of match play (sold out), 6:15 p.m. to 10:45 p.m.

Civic Center -- Saturday: finals ($10); doors open at 1 p.m.

TELEVISON: Saturday, 3-4:30 p.m., Ch. 7.

INFORMATION: 814-899-9855.

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