By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
Bowling has always been a part of Brianna Balkin’s life. From her high school days at Nutley, then on to college at Fairleigh Dickinson University and even now in local competitive leagues, Balkin has been a fixture at local bowling alleys.
Since she has had an affinity for the sport, Balkin wanted to find another way to get involved.
“I wanted to coach bowling for a long time,” Balkin said. “But the opportunity to coach doesn’t come up often.”
When Mike Rizzo had to resign his position as the head bowling coach at Lyndhurst High School after taking an administrative job within the Lyndhurst school district, Balkin applied for the spot.
“I saw this and I thought it was perfect,” Balkin said.
You see, Balkin works the same schedule as most teachers. She is a full-time nanny and actually works for some teachers.
“They come home after school and this allowed me to go to the school to coach when they came home,” Balkin said. “It was perfect.”
Balkin also already knew some of the Lyndhurst bowlers from the time she’s spent competing in local leagues.
“Some of their parents bowl in the same leagues that I play in,” Balkin said. “I actually went to watch Lyndhurst bowl last year.”
The 26-year-old Balkin knew that she was inheriting a solid program, developed over the years by former coach Rizzo. The Golden Bears won three NJSIAA state sectional championships over the last four years of Rizzo’s regime, so the cupboard wasn’t exactly bereft of talent.
“I knew that they were a good group of kids,” Balkin said. “I got lucky in that aspect.”
But Balkin never anticipated what has transpired since she took over as head coach in November.
“They’ve exceeded any expectations I might have had,” Balkin said. “I knew they were good, but I didn’t expect them to be this good.”
The Golden Bears have enjoyed an undefeated season in regular North Jersey Interscholastic Conference action, taking all 11 of their dual matches thus far.
However, the Golden Bears reached the pinnacle last weekend at Bowler City in Hackensack, when they captured the school’s first Bergen County Tournament championship in almost 40 years.
Not only did the Golden Bears win the county championship, but they broke the county record for pins in a game in the process.
“I knew that if the kids bowled like the way they had been recently, we had a good chance to win our group (Group I),” Balkin said. “I knew that Westwood and Indian Hills would be our toughest competition for the overall county championship, but I was really focused on winning our group. It was an added bonus winning the whole thing. I didn’t even know we had a chance for the county record and we were able to beat it by nine (pins). I don’t think the kids even realized what they were doing. It was pretty amazing.”
Four of the Golden Bears finished the tournament among the top 20 in the county. That in itself is an astounding accomplishment.
Balkin said that senior Mike Dul was the most impressive bowler in the tournament. Dul entered the tourney with a solid 189 average, but topped his own average by bowling to a 211 mark.
“He had the day of his life,” Balkin said. “The other kids called Mike the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the tournament. He finished 11th overall. He was steady in the first spot and the others rallied around him. He was a huge catalyst as our lead-off bowler. I was happy for him that he bowled so well.”
Junior Jordan Lopez, who was the individual county champion a year ago, rolling a perfect game of 300 in the tourney, placed fifth this year.
“I think he was more concerned with winning for the team,” Balkin said of Lopez, who bowls unconventionally with two hands instead of one. “He didn’t make a big deal of winning last year. He just needed to be himself and not caught up in the moment.”
Junior Daijon Smith is a transfer to the program, coming from American History High in Newark. But he’s been an incredible addition, bowling this season to a 227 average. Smith is also a twohanded bowler, so it’s almost unbelievable to have two on the same team.
“He’s probably one of the best spare shooters I’ve ever seen,” Balkin said. “He’s very good and consistent in making his spares. I knew he was good, but until I saw him start bowling with us in competition, I didn’t realize how good. He changed the dynamics of the whole team.”
There’s also no need for worry about any animosity between Lopez and Smith.
“They’re like best friends,” Balkin said. “The competition between the two of them is fun.”
Smith finished seventh overall at the Bergen County tourney.
Freshman Ryan Donohue has also been a godsend, coming onto the scene and adding instant credibility. Donohue, who rolled a perfect 300 game earlier this season, earning Observer Athlete of the Week honors, has close to 210 on an average, giving the Golden Bears three bowlers with averages of 210 and higher. Most high school teams are fortunate to have one with such a lofty average.
“Because we have other good bowlers, Ryan hasn’t had a lot of pressure on him,” Balkin said. “He knows he can bowl well on the high school level and has done well.”
Donohue finished 20th overall at the Bergen County tourney, cementing the Golden Bears’ status as the county’s best.
Junior Emily Young is in the Golden Bears’ main rotation. Lyndhurst has had other girls compete with the boys in the past, most notably, Lexus Lopez, who is currently bowling on a scholarship at FDU.
Young carries an average of 190 to the alley for every match.
“I don’t think it fazes her that she’s the only girl,” Balkin said. “She just wants to bowl. She never cares about anything else. She’s been used to being the only girl. She just goes out there and bowls.”
Next week, Young will get the chance to compete with strictly the girls at the state sectionals. Young is currently ranked No. 3 among girl bowlers in Bergen County.
Junior Michael Hayes and senior Massimo Sarracino are others who get the chance to bowl occasionally with the top varsity bowlers.
“It’s kind of unfortunate, because they would be starters on other teams,” Balkin said. “They understand their roles and are ready when they’re called upon to come off the bench.”
Needless to say, Balkin has been enjoying life, leading the Golden Bears to a county title in just her first two months on the job.
“This has definitely been a lot of fun,” Balkin said. “I came into a good situation and I didn’t want to mess things up. They’re a good group of kids who all want the others on their team to do well. They definitely have more fun than what I ever did bowling in high school.”
The Golden Bears are currently ranked fourth in the entire state. No Group distinction. This is top four in the entire state. That fact is also astounding.
“It’s definitely better than changing diapers, that’s for sure,” Balkin laughed.
If the Golden Bears continue their success through the upcoming NJSIAA state sectionals, then that would definitely make Balkin’s rookie campaign as head coach even more memorable.