BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
You don’t “play bowling,” you “go bowling,”as if the phrase itself implies an activity in which you’re supposed to luxuriate. But last Thursday evening at Bowlerama in Welland, Matthew Leppert played bowling. Leppert, a Grade 12 E. L. Crossley student who is headed to at least two national championships this spring, was going to miss his five-pin league on Saturday and was “bowling out” for those games.
While normally Leppert would throw his turn, and then sit and wait for it to arrive again, he was playing simultaneously on lanes 29 and 30 in the near-empty alley, bouncing back and forth and barely waiting for the pinsetter to lift its arm before firing off another shot.
“Are you marking down your scores?” asked his mother, Sylvia, who was seated nearby.
“Yes, mom,” said Leppert, pointing to a sheet of paper and a pencil laying on a table. He took aim at a solitary pin on the left side, and missed.
“Oh, c’mon,” he said to himself, reaching for the ball returner.
After bowling out for his five-pin league, Leppert had his regular Thursday night ten-pin group as well.
“I like ten-pin more,” he said. “They have that all over the world—five pin is pretty much just a Canadian thing.” He explained the differences between the two formats, which run much deeper than merely the number of pins.
“You want to hit about the same spot,” said Leppert, referring to the “pocket” between the lead pin and the one directly adjacent. “But in ten-pin, you’ve got to throw a hook, since the space to reach the pocket is much smaller.”
For each five-pin turn, bowlers are given three shots to knock down the pins, while a ten-pin turn is just two throws.
And then there are the oil patterns.
“There aren’t really any oil patterns in five-pin, but in ten-pin there are millions of possibilities,” said Leppert.
To make the game more complex, oil can be applied on a ten-pin lane in a myriad of ways, meaning that bowlers must adjust the way that they throw depending on varying slicknesses in parts of the lane. Different oil patterns require different types of balls, too.
“He has twenty-three different ten-pin balls at home, all of them with different grips and different weights,” said Sylvia. “Last year in his high school construction class, he built a ball rack. I said, ‘Perfect! Now you’ve somewhere to put them.’”
Leppert palmed another five-pin ball, of which he only has a couple, from the returner. He is tall and strong-looking and throws the ball with terrific force, and when he threw this ball it flew straight down the lane without wavering and knocked all of the pins over.
“Strike,” said Leppert quietly. “I wish I could do that every time.”
He was evidently being modest. Just the week before, he bowled a 299 in ten-pin—one point shy of a perfect game.
“I’ve never had a perfect game,” he said.
“Your father did,” said Sylvia. “When was it again?”
“October. October 1st, 2009,” said Leppert.
His father was an avid bowler before suffering a stroke four years ago, though Sylvia still bowls alongside her son.
“He’s been beating me since, I don’t know, he was twelve or thirteen,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure it was before that,” said Leppert playfully.
“Oh, all right, maybe ten or eleven,” said Sylvia, smiling.
To Leppert, bowling feels as natural as breathing; he has been doing it for as long as he can remember, though his mother says that he started when he was two.
“He was so young when he first came out—at an age when most kids just put the ball between their legs and let it go. But he put it off to the side and threw it.”
Now Leppert is at the bowling alley more often than not.
“If I’m not here at the alley, practising, then I’m working here,” he said. “I live here.”
As he practised, a handful of regulars at the alley stopped by to say hello. One man picked up Leppert’s five-pin ball and held it aloft.
“What’s the size on this?” he asked.
“That’s my five-inch,” said Leppert.
“Are you sure?” the man said. “I have a four and seven-eighths, and my fingers are at just about the same spot.”
“I’m pretty sure it is,” said Leppert.
“No, it can’t be a five-inch,” said the man. “It must be a four-and-fifteen-sixteenths.”
In January, Leppert qualified for the second of the national championships he’ll be attending, with more possibly to come. “It’s all very confusing, the different organizations that put on different tournaments,” he said.
But the bottom line is that Leppert has won two provincial championships to qualify, and could add more titles in the weeks ahead. Last year, he bowled in the Junior Gold event in Cleveland, finishing 204th out of 1400 in the under-20 division.
Both Leppert and his mother enjoy the travel.
“When we were in Cleveland last year, I went to the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame,” she said. “That’s something that I wouldn’t have done on my own. It’s good to get away from yourself for a while.”
Sylvia said that while hockey parents may have the reputation for intensity, bowling parents get into the game just as much. “Five-pin parents are worse for that,” she said. “That’s just part of the culture. But ten-pin can be bad, too. When Matthew was about to win the provincial championship, I had to look away. I knew that he could do it, but it was just too tense.”
This year’s Junior Gold tournament is in Texas, and Leppert is hoping to improve upon last year’s performance, even if the competition is tight.
“Bowling is really coming back,” said Leppert. “It was big in the eighties, and then it wasn’t as popular for a while. Now, there are lots of young bowlers here.”
In the lane beside him, the gutter racks were up for a father and his young son and daughter. Leppert watched as the girl dropped a ball down the lane, it bounced off the gutter a few times, and then took out two pins. Once their game had ended, the boy sat on a chair at the lane’s end and pouted. “You always win,” he said to his father.
“No, no,” the father said. “You won the last game. I definitely don’t win all the time.”
Over by the doors, a steady stream of people filled up the ten-pin side of the alley. A faint smell of cooking grease hovered in the air.
“I usually eat before I come here,” said Leppert.
Thursday was Leppert’s final day of exams, and also his final day of true high school classes.
“He has a full-time co-op in second semester,” said Sylvia, “at a heating and air-conditioning shop in Thorold.”
Leppert said that he hopes to get an apprenticeship for the fall, though has also applied to college.
“Georgian College in Barrie has the only bowling team,” he said. “I’d love to go there and then compete in the States with the team.”
Long-term, Leppert hopes to compete professionally, too.
“It’s a pretty simple process to do,” he said. “You get your card to go on the circuit, and then you can pay to enter the events. Then you just bowl.”