First time ever for a North Jersey school
By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
The Lyndhurst High School bowling team loaded up the team bus and headed south to Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick last Friday with modest expectations.
“Honestly, I was just hoping to see if we could get Group I,” said Lyndhurst second-year head bowling coach Brianna Balkin. “Last year, we finished second in Group I, so I wanted to win that. Last year, we broke all the records, had all the high scores, had the state sectional title and went down there and couldn’t get it together.”
So as the Golden Bears made another sojourn south on the New Jersey Turnpike, Balkin had one thing in mind.
“In my mind, the goal was to win Group I,” Balkin said. “Anything else that happened would be a bonus.”
But as the bus got closer to Carolier Lanes, the aspirations of the bowlers started to rise.
“The kids all wanted to win the whole thing,” Balkin said. “So I said that if we bowled (a combined score of) 3,100, we could win it.”
However, the prospects didn’t look good early on.
“We fell behind by 20 pins after the first game,” Balkin said. “I was thinking, ‘Here we go again.’”
But the Golden Bears seemed to catch lightning in a bottle. Senior Michael Hayes was inserted into the lineup to go along with the Bears’ usual stalwarts Jordan Lopez, Daijon Smith, Ryan Donohue and Emily Young.
“He was huge for us,” Balkin said. “He kept making spares. He said he was nervous and I told him that I needed him to keep making spares.”
That’s what Hayes did, rolling his best score of 190 to go along with the others. The Golden Bears got to 3,202 to win the Group I title over Pompton Lakes. North Arlington, led by standout Tyler Keefe (269 high game) finished sixth.
From there, the Golden Bears moved on to the Tournament of Champions to lock horns with Group IV champion Freehold Township, Group III champ Sayreville and Group II champ Rahway.
Incredibly, the Golden Bears drew the top seed for finishing first in the Group championships and faced Rahway in the semifinals, winning the Baker Series (alternate best ball) bestof- five by a three games to two margin.
From there, it was on to the overall T of C title match against Freehold Township, which defeated Sayreville. Again, there was more drama, right down to the final frames.
“They made things interesting and gave me a heart attack,” Balkin said.
But the Golden Bears prevailed, winning the title series by a similar three games to two margin.
And just like that, Lyndhurst became the first team from northern New Jersey to ever capture the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions title.
“It’s been one amazing ride,” Balkin said. “I credit the kids. My seniors, who I call ‘The Fab Five,’ have been tremendous. It’s not just bowling. It’s outside of the lanes. They’ve done so much for this program.”
The seniors are Lopez, Smith, Young, Hayes and Richard Sawires.
“It’s really amazing,” Balkin said. “They put in the work. They practice a lot on their own.”
Balkin said that another key was practicing the Baker system of bowling.
“We did a lot of Baker in college, so I knew that’s what was going to happen if we got to the state level,” Balkin said. “The kids all love Baker. Once they got there (to the T of C semifinals), they knew how to do it and were used to it.”
That experience obviously paid off.
What also helped was the competitiveness of the team, yet the camaraderie. For example, Lopez and Smith are so close as bowlers, with just a few pins separating the two each time they hit the lanes. They also use the same unique style, bowling with two hands instead of the conventional one-handed approach.
But they are also the best of friends, almost inseparable.
“They’re actually like brothers,” Balkin said. “They have a good healthy rivalry. Each wants to beat the other, but after they’re done, they’re always together. It makes a huge difference. They knew if they were going to do this, they needed to do it together. They all want each other to do well. They are so supportive of each other and comfortable with each other.”
The team also had a girl among the top bowlers in Young, who earned the top score overall last week at the NJSIAA North 1A sectionals. Lopez, Smith and Donohue have all bowled perfect games in their lives, so that is also a huge help.
Balkin said that the victory Friday takes away any of the bitterness the team experienced after losing the Bergen County tournament three weeks ago.
“I think that was the turning point of the season,” Balkin said. “We didn’t want to lose then, so that became motivation. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise, because ever since then, they were in the bowling alley every single day, practicing and working.”
Balkin said that there was a huge sense of pride becoming the first northern New Jersey team to ever secure the NJSIAA T of C title.
“It’s big for North Jersey,” Balkin said. “A lot of people think that we’re at a disadvantage, being from North Jersey. But we proved we can be just as good as the rest of the state.”
No, better yet, the Golden Bears proved that they can be better than any other team in the rest of New Jersey, winning the overall state title, one for the ages.
“It really is amazing,” Balkin said. “I think it’s something they’ll all remember for the rest of their lives.”