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Bowling by Milt Northrop: It’s anything but the same-old at the Obie

If it seems like it’s the same old names challenging for the championship of the 53rd annual George A. Obenauer Masters championship this week at AMF Airport Lanes in Cheektowaga, it just isn’t so.

Only eight of the 32 bowlers who qualified for match play in the 2015 Obenauer made it through qualifying for this year’s tournament.

That’s not counting Mike Zarcone, who was seeded last year as the defending champion and posted the fourth-best qualifying score this time.

Fifteen match-play participants from last year didn’t survive the qualifying rounds this year, and eight others did not enter. They included former champions Jack Jurek and Pat Brick. Pete Zmozynski, last year’s runner-up to Tony Dolan in the dramatic final round, was injured in practice before Tuesday night’s qualifying and forced to withdraw.

Adding to the attractiveness of this year’s field, however, is the presence of two of Western New York’s hottest PBA Tour pros – Ryan Ciminelli and John Szczerbinski. Ciminelli, the reigning U.S. Open champion, leads the Xtra Frames PBA Tour points race. Szczerbinski has been a strong challenger in several events on tour.

One of the neat things about the Obenauer is that accomplished Tour pros such as Ciminelli, Jurek, Szczerbinski, Brad Angelo and Joe Ciccone often compete against the best of the local amateurs and sometimes lose. To his credit, Jurek has been a loyal competitor and supporter of the Obenauer. Four times he has topped the qualifying, but he won the Obie only once, in 1990. Ciminelli, Angelo and Ciccone each have been Obenauer champions.

Many a local can one day tell his grandkids about losing to a PBA Tour champion in the Obenauer. Perhaps a parallel would be a Muny AAA baseball player recalling the day he was struck out by Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw at Delaware Park.

Ciminelli, the last to win back-to-back Obenauers (2010, 2011), is probably the favorite to win this year. Heck, he seems to have a shot at winning every event on the PBA Tour or at least leading the qualifying.

Going into Friday’s matches, who among the local amateurs looks like a challenger for the title? Former champions Dolan, Zarcone and Mike Hanes should not be discounted. Zarcone, the No. 4 seed who lost a first-round match to Mike Kemp of Cheektowaga, rallied to bowl the high set in the first elimination round on Thursday. He shot 663 in sending young Kevin Bienko to the sidelines.

How about a new face?

Matt Zasowski of Kenmore won his first match on Thursday with a 725 score for three games, easily the highest score posted in match play. Next best was a 671 by Ciminelli.

Mike Johnson of Grand Island was the top qualifier in 2015 and No. 3 this time behind Ciminelli and Szczerbinski. Ray Richards of Alden has performed well on the new Greater Buffalo Bowlers Tour and Joe Burgio of the Town of Tonawanda has made the final four in the Masters before. Two young hopefuls are University at Buffalo student Andrew Herbert of Eden and Dave Zajac of Niagara Falls.

It’s often a case of the luck of the draw in match-play bowling. You can lose with a high score or, in the case of Justin Zimmerman of Cheektowaga, survive with a less-than-ordinary performance. Zimmerman shot only 560 in his victory over Charlie Zmozynski in the first round of matches. A lot can depend on the pair of lanes you draw.

Last year, four of the top 10 seeds were eliminated the first night of match play, including the No. 2 seed Carl Kinyon of Lockport. Only three top 10 seeds fell in this year’s first elimination round on Thursday, the highest being No. 6 Gary Kinyon of Lockport.

Only one woman, Liz Johnson, of course, has won the Obenauer. She took the 2009 title at Airport, two years after she was runner-up to Mike Faliero Jr. and one year after she led the qualifying. None of the female entrants qualified for match play this year.

A year ago, Kristina Szczerbinski, bowling under her maiden name, Kristina Frahm, qualified ninth and was 1-2 in match play. She was 41st in this year’s qualifying, 29 pins off the cut line after an outstanding City Women’s Tournament. Szczerbinski won the singles and all-events titles, both scratch and handicap, in the City.

Ciminelli led the qualifying with an eight-game total of 1,809. That was not even close to the qualifying record of 1,975 by Ciccone in 2009, also at Airport. However, he did not win the Masters that year. The title went to Liz Johnson. Ciminelli in 2010 is the only bowler to win both the Pete Parisi Award as the top qualifier and go on to win the Master title.

Sweeping both is an elusive target.

Pin chasers

• The last local qualifier for the Junior Gold Tournament will be at 7 p.m. May 24 at Broadway Sports Center in Cheektowaga. Entry is $35. The national tournament will be held July 16-23 in Indianapolis. The tournament has six divisions – U12 Boys, U12 Girls, U15 Boys, U15 Girls, U20 Boys and U20 Girls.

• John Szczerbinski was on the losing side for the New York City WTT KingPins in their 4-2 loss to Norm Duke’s GoBowling.com Dallas Strikers in the finals of the PBA Elias Cup matches televised last Sunday but bowled in Portland, Maine, two months ago. Szczerbinski did team up with Mike Fagan to defeat Duke and Bill O’Neill, 224-179, in the Alternate Ball Doubles Match, which was worth one point for New York. The other New York point came in the Baker Trios match, in which Szczerbinski did not bowl.

email: mnorthrop@buffnews.com