One day in 1967, George Killian, the ambitious director of athletics at Erie Community College, asked energetic newcomer Kerm Helmer to start a men's bowling team.
Helmer dug right in. By the time he died in 2003, Helmer's drive, determination and organization had resulted in men's and women's college bowling dynasties.
ECC will symbolically celebrate 50 years of bowling in conjunction with the annual National Junior College Athletic Association tournament at AMF Airport Lanes. The college has hosted the event 49 times.
The occasion will commemorate ECC's role in the development of college bowling. ECC remains as an important player on the college bowling front as it has since the day Killian held that first meeting with Helmer more than a half century ago.
The heritage is remarkable, and it is one that put ECC on the national map. It once was calculated that ECC bowling teams had competed in 68 venues out of state, including Hawaii, 50 in-state houses and four foreign nations, including Canada.
ECC has won 28 women's and 18 men's NJCAA titles. That doesn't include four Intercollegiate Bowling Championships while competing against four-year colleges. The women won in 1980 and 1982 and the men were victorious in 1986 and 1988. Each had a runner-up finish as well.
Last weekend, the Kats' men's team, coached by Roy Decibus, won its 22nd NJCAA Region III championship. The women placed seventh. The men's promising performance in Utica raised hopes that the Kats can challenge for their first NJCAA team title since 2011.
Joseph Peters (Williamsville East) was the regional all-events winner. Peters and Dominic Germano (Kenmore East) won doubles and Michael Costello and Andrew Burckhalter (West Seneca West) were second in doubles and finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in all-events.
Cassandra Green (Pioneer) was ninth in women's all-events and teamed with Brittany McAndrews (Pioneer) to finish third in doubles.
The last ECC women's national title came in 2014 by a team led by Elizabeth Szpara and Gabrielle Damin.
ECC didn't have a women's bowling team when Hall of Famer Cindy Coburn-Carroll was considering colleges in the mid-1970s. In her first year at ECC, she bowled in a couple of tournaments with the men's team.
"It was just a great experience for me, college bowling," Coburn-Carroll said. "You can't replace that once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Coburn-Carroll, along with prominent local bowlers Sue Fulton Schottke and Gail Simmons Krycum, bowled on ECC's first women's teams. Coburn-Carroll remembers the early years of the women's program and Helmer's impact.
"We traveled by van," she said. "Kerm actually put together a pretty extensive schedule of tournaments so we could qualify for the nationals."
Helmer's role was more as an organizer and facilitator than a technical coach.
"He was very resourceful," Coburn-Carroll said. "He was able to get kids the help needed in their game, knowing who to go to to help the kids. And with just the talent on hand, there was a lot to learn from each other as teammates, too."
Like many who have followed her, Coburn-Carroll moved from ECC to bowl at a four-year college. She bowled at UB on the same team as Schottke and Krycum.
ECC bowlers' individual accomplishments are numerous since the 1967-68 season. Ninety Kats have been named first-team NJCAA Women's All-America, with 24 repeat selections. Men were cited 61 times, including six who were repeat honorees.
ECC's success has raised the level of college bowling in the region. It has spurred successful programs at other two-year schools in the state, especially at Schenectady County CC, Hudson Valley, Corning and Mohawk Valley.
The Kats once dominated Region III bowling, winning 29 straight women's titles from 1977 to 2005 before Hudson Valley broke through in 2006. Since then, ECC women have won just one regional title. The last regional won by the men was in 2011.
Ken Duke, who has bowled, coached and filled the role of chief bowling teams administrator before his retirement from the faculty three years ago, has witnessed much of ECC's bowling history.
The first team that came to mind for Duke was the 1996-97 women's championship team led by two-time All-American and two-time NJCAA all-events champion Janette Pieczynski. ECC starting five lineup of Pieczynski, Keli Rapp, Kelly Simme, D.J. Shaner and Tammy Schmidt made All-America that year.
A memorable men's team was the 2000 version that did not win a championship outside the region, but may have been the spunkiest group in ECC history.
After finishing second to Vincennes College in the NJCAA championship, the 2000 ECC team advanced to the Intercollegiate Bowling Championship. The Kats lost their first match to Mesa CC in Arizona then won seven matches in a row only to lose to four-year college West Texas State (now West Texas A&M) in the championship final of the double-elimination tournament.
That Erie squad was led by Brian Cline, who made the all-tournament team.
"He probably averaged 225-230 for the tournament," Duke said. "In Baker, he was just amazing."
Even though the Kats did not win the national title that year, T.J. Ruggiero won the singles and all-events. His father, Tom, is the current ECC women's team coach.
Ryan Ciminelli, who won NJCAA all-events in 2005 and 2007, and Brad Angelo are former Kats now bowling on the PBA Tour.
Angelo, Joe Ciccone and Brad Kiszewski received rookie of the year honors when they broke in on the pro tour.
Ciccone established an all-events record pin-fall total (2,870) and all-events average (239) in 1994.
"Ciccone's records probably will never be beaten became they were bowled on a house shot and the tournament is bowled on a Sport shot now," Duke said.
The NJCAA bowling record book includes ECC names and accomplishments. Peggy Funk has the women's all-events record of 2,638 in 1983. She averaged 219. The 1997 doubles team of Pieczynski and Rapp holds the tournament record of 1,361.
Former ECC bowlers have been prominent on the local and regional bowling scenes, too. Five former Kats have combined to win 17 of 55 George A. Obenauer Masters titles. Seven regional Queens titles have been won by former ECC women bowlers.
The Greater Buffalo USBC Association Hall of Fame's Outstanding Ability section lists 15 former ECC bowlers among its ranks.
Bowlers, such as Jody Ellis, have come from as far away as South Africa to compete for the Kats. Ellis bowled a 300 in the 1994 and 1995 NJCAA championships.
Duke is helping to organize the celebration, which will take place during the NJCAA Championship banquet on Friday at Salvatore's Italian Gardens.
"We've even invited past bowlers we know can't make it," Duke said. "We went them to know that they are being honored."