By Jim Hague
When the high school bowling season began, Lyndhurst head coach Michael Rizzo knew that he had the makings of a special team, one that could actually compete for the Bergen County Championships among Group 1 and 2 schools.
“I did feel good about our chances,” Rizzo said. “We were right up there with some of the other elite programs.”
A week before the county tournament, held Saturday at Bowler City in Hackensack, Rizzo had an even better feeling.
“We had been bowling our best all year recently and hitting our stride,” Rizzo said. “The kids had been bowling the way I expected them to. We’ve been a good tournament team all year long.”
However, disaster seemed to strike the Golden Bears last Monday, when senior captain Carmine Battista severely sprained his ankle playing basketball during a gym class.
“I was going up for a layup and I got pushed from behind,” Battista said. “I came down on my ankle wrong and twisted it bad. I was in unbelievable pain.”
“I got a text message Monday that Carmine was wheeled out of school in a wheelchair,” Rizzo said. “My first thoughts were all expletives.”
The Golden Bears had a crucial NJIC Meadowlands Division match that day against Becton Regional. It was hard for the team to move forward without Battista.
“Carmine’s the captain and the team’s leader, like I expected him to be,” Rizzo said. “We go as Carmine goes.”
“I saw the season flash before my eyes,” Battista said. “I knew I had to go to the doctor’s right away. I didn’t even wait. I skipped lunch and went to the doctor.”
After paying a visit to local doctor Dr. Michael Subik, who fitted Battista in a protective boot, Battista went to the bowling alley that afternoon.
“Dr. Subik didn’t want me to bowl,” Battista said. “I was very lucky it wasn’t broken. But I had to help our team beat Becton (Regional).”
Battista bowled only one game on the injured ankle, but it was good enough to lead the Golden Bears to the big win.
On Saturday, still hobbled by the injured ankle and still donning the protective boot, Battista led his team into the county championships.
“When he got hurt, I figured he was out,” Rizzo said. “But he went out there and was gimping around. He performed like Willis Reed.”
Reed was the captain of the New York Knicks who miraculously was able to come out of the tunnel in Madison Square Garden on a severely injured hip to lead the Knicks to a win in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.
Battista was a lot like Reed Saturday.
“If we didn’t have him, we never would have had a shot,” Rizzo said. “He wasn’t 100 percent and he was sore, but he was able to bowl six games.”
“It had been hurting all week and it hurt pretty bad on Saturday,” Battista said. “But I had to go out there. I had to do it for my team. I could barely feel my ankle on Saturday, but I stuck through it and tried my best.”
Battista was able to bowl a six-game series of 1,230, which was good enough for 19th overall. It also was good enough to lead the Golden Bears to their first county title since 1998.
“Funny, I’m not even worried about my ankle now,” Battista said. “I knew we had the capability to win if we all bowled well. It’s great to be able to win the county, because a lot of people didn’t think we could do it. It’s really something I wanted before I graduated.”
Battista isn’t the only Golden Bear bowler to come through in the clutch on Saturday.
Junior Lexus Lopez, the lone female on the boys’ bowling team, led the way with a 1,245 series, the 17th best total of all bowlers. Younger brother Jordan Lopez, a freshman, rolled a 1,223 series, good for 21st overall.
That’s solid consistency between the Golden Bears’ top three bowlers.
The Lopez family has a strong contribution with the team. Lexus, who also plays girls’ basketball, has been a mainstay for the last few years. Jordan has emerged this year as a talented freshman.
“They’re such a different pair,” Rizzo said. “Lexus bottles up her emotions more. Jordan is still a young kid, only 14 years old, but he’s very emotional. Lexus is the mentor to her brother and has been bringing him along, talking him through things. Jordan has to control his emotions more.”
Their father, Andres Lopez, is the team’s volunteer assistant coach.
“We definitely appreciate him,” Rizzo said. “He’s with us all the time. He makes adjustments on the lanes and he’s a great right-hand man to have.”
Senior Paul Ulrich was a solid bowler, averaging 186 all season.
“He’s been the model of consistency,” Rizzo said.
Senior Nyquan Johnson, who transferred to Lyndhurst after a stint at a school in Brooklyn, has been a solid addition, averaging in the 190s. Johnson is another who is juggling basketball and bowling in the same season.
Sophomore Michael Dul shared time with Johnson in the county tournament, as Lyndhurst defeated runner-up Pascack Hills by a 5,875-5,691 margin. Westwood was third. North Arlington finished 10th and Queen of Peace was 19th overall.
“It feels great,” Rizzo said. “It’s nice to see the kids get rewarded for putting in all the time and effort. It’s all paying off now. They deserve what they won.”
The Golden Bears will now move on to the NJSIAA state sectionals Feb. 11 also at Bowler City. Lexus Lopez will compete in the girls’ state sectionals this weekend, also at Bowler City.