Wichitans help power Shocker bowling to national tournament in Las Vegas

  • Shocker bowlers will try to add to their total of 22 national titles this week in Las Vegas.
  • Wichita State's selected team includes five students from the Wichita area.
  • Director of bowling Mark Lewis credits a network of Shocker coaches with boosting local bowling instruction and interest.

Brandon Bonta took bowling seriously at age 10. He learned at Wichita’s West Acres Bowling Center from Rick Steelsmith, one of Wichita State University’s greatest bowlers. 

That was Bonta’s first step into the Shocker bowling ecosystem. He bowls at Wichita State, and Steelsmith is his coach — a path that seems irresistible for talented youth bowlers in and around Wichita. 

“It’s, honestly, a dream come true,” said Bonta, a sophomore majoring in sport management. “When the best school is 20 minutes away from your house, that’s really all you want to do.” 

Wichita State’s bowling teams are in Las Vegas this week for the United States Bowling Congress Intercollegiate Singles and Team Championships at South Point Bowling Plaza. Team play begins Thursday with the singles and team finals on Saturday.The taped televised finals will air at 6 p.m. on April 25, May 2, 9 and 16 on CBS Sports Network.

The Shockers finished second in both the men’s and women’s competition in 2022 after winning both titles in 2021. 

With Bonta and others, Wichita State’s select team boasts a local contingent not found on rosters since the program’s early days. Bonta, from Wichita Northwest High School, is on the men’s eight-person team competing this week. Haysville Campus High’s Piper Reams, a sophomore majoring in business administration, will bowl for the seven-person women’s team. 

Additionally, the 22-person selected team that serves as Wichita State’s varsity program features junior Brandon Collins, a finance major; freshman Samuel Calderon, majoring in mechanical engineering and French; and Chloe Ciecko, a junior majoring in game design — all from Wichita. Freshman Paige Wagner, majoring in pre-physical therapy, is from Great Bend. 

The 1975 women’s team that won the first ITC title consisted entirely of Wichitans. Over the next decade, the program’s reach expanded nationally and internationally. The current roster includes students from Pereira, Colombia; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Terre Haute, Indiana; and Dublin, Ohio. 

“The history of the program has been built on Wichita players,” said Mark Lewis, director of Shocker bowling. “It’s grown over time to where they’re from all over the place.” 

When the best school is 20 minutes away from your house, that’s really all you want to do.
Brandon Bonta, sophomore

Several factors make this a boom time for Wichitans on the roster.  

The environment starts with the success of the program, which puts young bowlers in contact with Shocker bowling throughout their development. They are coached by current and former Shockers, attend summer camps at the Rhatigan Student Center, compete against current and former Shockers in league play, and watch the Shockers each April at the ITC Championships. 

Steelsmith, now the men’s head coach, also coached Calderon as a youngster. Holly Harris, the women’s coach, ran the youth leagues at Northrock Lanes. 

“I started bowling when I was about 5 or 6 years old,” Calderon said. “When I was 9 years old, I went to my first national tournament in Buffalo, New York It was a bad performance, but it was my gateway into the bowling world.” 

Sara Vargas, a former Shocker bowler, helped open that gateway by bowling with Calderon. 

“Her family became really good friends with my family and that’s how I started,” Calderon said. “Living and bowling in Wichita, Wichita State is the bowling program. I’ve had my mind set on it since I started bowling.” 

Ciecko, like Calderon from Kapaun Mount Carmel Catholic High School, took a different path. She did not bowl until high school and did not make the team at Wichita State as a freshman. She made the selected team this year after spending 2021-22 on the developmental team. 

“I just wanted to do a sport for fun (in high school),” Ciecko said. “I knew I didn’t want to stop bowling, but I was still lacking a lot of experience. It was much more of a process for me than my teammates. Wichita State really equipped me with a lot of knowledge and a lot of resources.” 

The unusual number of Wichitans on the roster makes a statement about improved youth and high school bowling in Kansas.  

The Kansas State High School Activities Association sponsored its first state tournament in 2005. Lewis estimates that a dozen or more former Shockers, such as Packy Hanrahan, live locally and coach Wichita bowlers. Former Shocker Billy Murphy, who bowled at Heights High School, started the program at Newman University in 2002 and remains coach. 

“High school bowling in Wichita and Kansas has gotten better,” Lewis said. “Coaching has gotten better. The city of Wichita has had a strong tradition of great play, which is known nationally. It’s not just a place where people go to have fun to bowl. It’s a very talented, competitive level.” 

When the local bowlers arrive at Wichita State, they find the path to success hasn’t changed over the years. They talk to bowlers at other schools and find often those schools don’t require the 6:30 a.m. strength and agility work or mental preparation that are routine at Wichita State.  

“We do what other people don’t want to do,” Collins said. “We practice four times a week and have workouts three times a week. When you tell other teams you do workouts, they think you’re crazy.” 

For people all over the world, Wichita State is a dream school for bowling. For local bowlers, the dream is a constant part of their life in the sport. 

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