Hamilton Township is becoming the mecca of New Jersey high school bowling without even trying.
Despite not having a team at any of the three schools, the township produced two of the top three bowlers in the state at this year’s NJSIAA Individual Tournament at Bowlero North Brunswick.
On Feb. 14, Steinert senior Ryan Carlisi made history by becoming the first boy to win consecutive titles since the tournament began in 1958. Hamilton West junior Brittany Lucci finished second to Toms River North’s Kamerin Peters in the girls’ championship round.
For good measure, on Feb. 3 Steinert junior Ethan Matthews bowled a tournament-high 296 while entered as an individual on the day of the team sectional championships. Carlisi had the high series of 803 that same afternoon as both advanced to the first qualifying round on Valentine’s Day.
“That was really cool,” Carlisi said. “Ethan bowled really well. He’s gonna be good. He just needs a little work here and there. If he has any questions, he’ll just text me. But it’s good to see bowling may have a future in our school.”
Whether Steinert could field a full team remains to be seen, although Lucci’s success brings up the question of whether the three schools could combine for a co-op team, which is done in hockey and swimming.
That’s another story for another day, however, as this year was about outstanding individual performances.
After winning last year, Carlisi entered the fray feeling both pressure and confidence.
“I felt like the Carolier boards were the same this year as they were last year, so I was a little confident about that,” he said. “I was also feeling the pressure like, ‘All right you gotta repeat. You did it once, you gotta do it again.’”
So how did he respond? By bowling a 300 in the first game of the first qualifying round en-route to an 824 series, which led all bowlers.
“Bowling the 300 got my confidence up a lot for the rest of the day,” he said. “I’m in a good spot. I’m up a lot on the field. Going into the second qualifying block, I was up by 60 pins and had a good cushion. I knew I had some breathing room if I made a mistake.”
The top 18 moved on to the second qualifier (Matthews did not advance) and after three more games Carlisi had earned the top seed in stepladder play with 1,537 total pins.
That meant he had to bowl just one more game, and he promptly defeated East Brunswick’s 3rd-seeded Daniel Lenk, 299-248. Amazingly, he left the two pin on his final throw to just miss a second 300 game in one day.
“My feet got a little too fast, I got it outside and it just never hooked back,” Carlisi said. “Did I want to bowl a 300? Yeah. But in the end it didn’t matter to me. I’m still state champion.”
And he was in a zone against Lenk, saying, “I just came out in the final match and kept repeating to myself ‘This is what we worked for the whole year. This is what we worked for the whole year.’ I came out firing.”
He impressed at least one person in the lanes.
“I did get to see him bowl a little bit, and he definitely bowled his hardest,” Lucci said. “He bowled the 300, and then a 299, which is insane all in one day.”
It was the latest in another line of great achievements for Carlisi. Since winning his first high school title last year, Carlisi has won three Junior Bowlers Tour and two Pennsylvania Junior Bowlers Tour championships. He also showed well at the December trials for the U.S. National team in Las Vegas. Although bowling is not an Olympic sport, the team plays in World Youth tournaments.
During a rigorous week, the candidates bowled five games a day for six straight days. Carlisi averaged a 205.2, which put him in the top 50 percent but left him 15 spots short of making the 12-man team. Nonetheless, he was happy with his effort.
“For my first time doing it, absolutely,” Carlisi said. “They have tryouts every year, so I’ll have another chance.”
For now, he’s still coming to grips with making New Jersey high school history.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet, maybe in a week or so,” said Carlisi, who will bowl at William Paterson University next year. “It just feels right to me. It feels like I worked so hard for this, and it happened.”
Lucci has also been reaping the benefits of hard work, as bowling is in her blood.
Lucci began at age 11 in leagues at Morrisville Lanes, owned by her father, Pat. While she noted that her dad is a good bowler, Lucci’s greatest praise was saved for her great grandfather, Vincent Lucci, Sr., who is in the United States Bowling Commerce Hall of Fame.
“My grandfather (Vincent Jr.) was definitely good but my great grandfather had plenty of 300 games, won tons of tournaments and bowled up into his 80s,” Lucci said. “Everything was perfect in the game for him. He passed away before I was born, but I got to see him on videos. It was unbelievable.”
While bowling at Morrisville, Lucci met Carlisi, who encouraged her to bowl at Howell Lanes down by the shore. Bowling legend Johnny Petraglia frequents Howell and is a family friend to the Luccis. He and several others helped Lucci hone her game.
“He coaches me every now and then, and he’s a great coach,” Lucci said. “I started in that league this year, and it’s such a big influence. All of them down there are great at coaching. I was definitely not good when I started but I’ve had a bunch of coaches who have helped me progress along the way.”
Lucci was eligible to sign up for the state tournament, which requires an average of over 170. She averages 186 at Morrisville and 191 at Howell. During her first two seasons representing the Hornets, Lucci had moderate success as she advanced one round both times.
“I wasn’t on the level those girls were,” she said. “I really just wanted to go to states because I wanted to see who my competitors were, who was as good as me and who was better than me. Seeing that type makes you get better because you always want to beat the girl who’s better than you. You always want to try harder.”
Thus, she kept grinding away and it paid off this year. She finished sixth in the first qualifying round with a 678 series, and shot up to second after the second qualifying round with a six-game mark of 1,416 pins. In her first stepladder match, Lucci defeated Parsippany’s Lauren Marks, 279-182, matching her career high in the process. But the tank was empty in the finals, as Peters took a 279-140 win.
“I was definitely exhausted by that time,” Lucci said. “I had a big game the game before. I think getting exhausted can get you off your game. I left a bunch of splits. Once it was halfway through the game, I knew I wasn’t gonna win, I just started cheering Kamerin on. I wanted her to get a good game.”
The final round could not take away from the overall experience.
“I think getting second will give me the dedication to maybe get first next year,” she said. “It will encourage me to work even harder. This was definitely a (career) highlight. I took a lot of last year off due to an injury (concussion), so coming back this year and getting second was definitely a big deal. In 2014, I was Pennsylvania district and state champ, but that doesn’t compare to high school. This is definitely much more amazing.”
“Brittany bowled extremely well in states,” Carlisi said.
Lucci suffered her concussion while dancing, which is her other main activity. She feels it actually helps her on the lanes.
“It could come in handy,” she said. “In bowling, when you’re sliding it could be good that you’re a little flexible. I feel dancing helps my knees. Bowling could really destroy your knees but dancing gets them loose and doesn’t destroy them too bad.”
It could come in handy in one other way as well. If she reaches her goal of winning it all next year, she will look good doing her victory dance.