Donna Fernandez played soccer until she was forced to give it up because she had asthma.
She wasn’t too disappointed.
“I wasn’t very good at it anyway,” the 14-year-old said.
Her mother, Andrea Elbrecht, wanted her daughter to find a sport in which she could excel and have fun.
She had no idea that would turn out to be bowling.
“I didn’t know the first thing about bowling,” said Elbrecht, who lives in Land O’ Lakes.
Chance — and a friend’s birthday party at a bowling alley — settled the matter. Fernandez found her niche.
The teenager has had the highest average score in Hillsborough County in her age group for the past two years.
She currently is topping her own previous records with an average 180 points a game.
She and 15-year-old Jacob Kostoff, who lives in Trinity, will test their skills against hundreds of bowlers this summer, when they head to Chicago to compete at the national Jr. Gold Championship.
Kostoff eased into bowling naturally by watching his father play in a local league.
He rolled his first ball toward the tenpins when he was just 8. The ball was so heavy, he lifted it with two hands. Seven years later, he is a rarity, a left-handed bowler with a two-handed bowling style.
Fernandez and Kostoff competed in a tournament in DeLand to secure their tournament spots.
Their coach is Lucy Sandelin, a Hall of Fame bowler who is a two-time winner of the United States Bowling Congress Senior Queens title. She hopes to win a third title this year. Sandelin also is a former member of Team USA. She coaches with World Cup Bowling Academy, based in Tampa.
Practice sessions in coming weeks will focus on gaining real-time experience in bowling on lanes with different oil patterns.
Bowling alleys have “lane machines” that put down varying amounts of oil over parts of the width and length of each lane.
Sandelin is focusing on five of 24 recognized patterns, each named after a city that has hosted the Olympics. The patterns aren’t visible to the eye, but they make a huge difference in game strategies, she said.
Competitors in Chicago will learn a week before the tournament start what pattern will be applied to the lanes.
One of the most challenging patterns is the Los Angeles pattern, said Sandelin.
“It’s their (bowlers’) nemesis,” she said because it forces bowlers to roll their balls close to the gutters to avoid the heaviest amounts of oil.
Her students make detailed notes.
The notes offer explicit instructions: “It tells them ‘I stand here. I look here. I use this hand position. I use this ball speed,” Sandelin said.
Fernandez and Kostoff have very different styles.
“His two-handed style is phenomenal,” Sandelin said. “People look at him and go ‘wow.’”
His goal is to attend college on a bowling scholarship and then to turn pro.
He gave fleeting consideration to switching to a more standard one-handed bowling style, but decided to stick with his approach.
After all, Australian bowler Jason Belmonte is a two-handed bowler.
“Right now, he’s the best bowler in the world,” Kostoff said.
Fernandez is laid back and doesn’t give in to distractions or pressure.
“A lot of things don’t bother her,” Sandelin said. “That’s going to be to her advantage (in Chicago).”
Her calm demeanor may be disarming.
“She’s a fierce competitor,” Sandelin said.
Both youths play in three bowling leagues and practice three to four days a week at bowling alleys in Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
On a recent Thursday night, they were at Royal Lanes in Lutz, along with 14-year-old Lutz resident Chandler Carr and Land O’ Lakes resident 16-year-old Alec Ballard.
The foursome will compete later this year in a state tournament.
Carr, who has been playing baseball since he was 4, is relatively new to bowling. He just started last year.
“Now all he wants to do is bowl, bowl, bowl,” said his mother, Suzin Carr. “He finally found something he really likes. It is something you can do as an individual. You are part of a team, but you also enjoy it as an individual sport.”
He’s gone from 43 points a game to a high of 265. “He’d do it every day of the week, if I let him,” she said.
When bowling, teammates often high-five each other.
“They want to win, but they are also supportive of one another,” Carr said.
Sandelin, 58, started bowling at age 6.
Bowling is a sport open to everyone, she said.
“A lot of these kids don’t have other sports they can play,” she said. “They have asthma. They can’t run. But in bowling, you don’t have to be tall or strong. You need eye and hand coordination.”
Bowling offers so many life lessons to students, Elbrecht said. That’s why she is disappointed that public schools in Pasco and Hillsborough – with one exception – don’t offer it in school athletics.
In Hillsborough County, Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate Charter School is the only public school with a bowling team, according to the school’s website. Boys and girls compete on a coed team.
Schools are missing out on opportunities to include more students in athletics and also in giving students a chance at winning scholarships, Elbrecht said.
Through its SMART (Scholarship Management and Accounting Reports for Tenpins) program, the United States Bowling Congress helps student bowlers secure scholarship money for college.
Students can earn scholarship dollars based on the number of pins they knock down, Elbrecht said. “It’s a fantastic sport. I’ve known a lot of kids who funded their college educations.”
Her daughter has her scholarship money waiting in a USBC account and hopes to attend college on full scholarship. Long-range, she wants a career in the medical field.
But bowling will be a lifelong passion.
“You can control what you do,” Fernandez said. “You can sort of show off in an independent game, and you can improve.”
And, she likes her chances in Chicago.
“I have a mental game. That’s what most bowlers don’t have,” Fernandez said.
Sandelin’s advice to her students is this: “Enjoy the journey … Make friends. Enjoy the process.”
Published March 18, 2015