Hempfield bowlers set sights on WPIBL titles
By: William Whalen
Monday, February 12, 2018 | 6:15 PM
Anything is possible when talent catches up to potential, and the defending Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Bowling League champions from Hempfield are proving just that.
With a lineup that was both young and inexperienced to start the season, the Hempfield girls have found their stride and are looking for much more as they march into the postseason.
“It gives you a little excitement, and it's a team that there wasn't a whole lot of high expectations for,” Hempfield bowling coach Rich Gockel said. “We didn't have a whole lot of expectations at first, but when they kept winning, we raised the expectations for them. We're peaking at the right time.”
Hempfield (9-1) downed Southeast Conference rival Norwin (7-3) on Friday to win the conference and advance to Thursday's WPIBL girls championships at Butler's Family Bowlaway Fun Center where the top two teams in each of the nine WPIBL conferences will compete for a title.
“By knocking out Norwin, (we) allowed our arch-enemy Greensburg Salem to fall into the second spot of the section,” Gockel said. “I think that's who we're gonna run into (in the tournament).”
Regardless of who the Spartans meet, teams must first get past Hempfield's winning reputation. The Spartans return just two bowlers from last season's championship team — sophomore Teresa Dube and senior captain Hannah Sabo. With Sabo, who holds a 156 average, and Dube (197), Gockel has bookended his lineup with experience while tucking away his young talent in between.
First-year senior Alyssa McClintock has a 108 average, but Gockel said since she changed balls recently, she holds a 144 average and threw a career-high 179 against Penn-Trafford.
The youth feeder programs continue to stock Hempfield with young talent. Freshman Madison Gray holds a solid 143 average at the No. 3 spot in the order.
“She's been in the junior programs forever coming up,” Gockel said. “All she needs is a little self-confidence. Once she builds that up, she's gonna be one of the best bowlers at Hempfield.”
Ashliegh Walker moved from Hempfield's sixth bowler last year to the No. 4 spot in the order. The sophomore will carry a 153 average into the tournament. Gockel said first-year seniors Mallie Falatovich (139) and Julie Kucherer (110) have added depth.
With everything clicking to finish the regular season, there could be one more obstacle for Gockel's Spartans. How will his young bowlers react in a championship environment?
“It's going to come down to if they can handle it or not,” Gockel said. “I hope they will be totally oblivious to what's going on and concentrate on bowling.”
The Southeast Conference champion Hempfield boys team, which finished the regular season 10-0, will be in action Wednesday at Lower Burrell's Wildlife Lanes and compete for the WPIBL title. Like the girls, the boys team also is no stranger to championships. Since Gockel took over as coach in 2014, the Spartans have won WPIBL championships in 2014 and ‘16.
“They're cresting right now,” said Gockel, whose boys team lost to Armstrong in the finals last year. “This is the time of year where I want them to be bowling their best.”
In addition to conference rival and second-place finisher Norwin, Gockel said nonconference teams such as Butler, Plum, Franklin Regional, Beaver Falls, Kiski Area and Armstrong all will be tough to beat.
“The last three weeks, they've really come on,” Gockel said.
Gockel will look for consistency out of his leadoff bowler — sophomore Ethan Hayden (192). Senior Brady Stiffler (186) will be the No. 2 bowler in the lineup, followed by senior Jesse Janick (192) at the No. 3 spot and senior captain Jerome Konieczka (206) at No. 4. Gockel expects Konieczka, a four-year starter, to have a good roll. Sophomore southpaw Luke Vukovich (214) will bring up the rear at the fifth and final spot. For being so young, Gockel said he likes Vukovich's poise and confidence.
“He's the flamboyant one,” Gockel said. “He gives the cool appearance outside, but inside the fire burns real bright. He said, ‘Coach, put me at anchor and you won't regret it.' ”
Gockel said while both the boys and girls teams are competing well at the moment and have had success during the regular season, the goal for both teams is to win a championship.
“We have enough plaques and everything else,” he said, “we want to get the trophy this year.”
William Whalen is a freelance writer.