TJ bowler completes quick climb to top with school’s first WPIBL singles title

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Monday, March 15, 2021 | 1:04 PM


Nick Johnson has been bowling competitively for only three years.

This year has proven to be special. And historic.

Johnson, a junior at Thomas Jefferson, is the first bowler in school history to win a WPIBL singles championship.

“TJ bowling has had some good bowlers in the past that have gone on to bowl in college,” said John Kuzniar, TJ’s veteran coach. “Liz Brock was league MVP in her senior year a couple of years back.

“Nick is our first champion.”

Johnson edged Freeport’s Mark Livingston, 195-191, to claim the boys singles title Feb. 24 at AMF Mt. Lebanon Lanes.

“Coming into the tournament, I had the opportunity beforehand to bowl on the pattern that would be used. It’s called ‘Broadway,’ which is a 37-foot pattern,” Johnson said. “Having that experience definitely boosted my confidence, so I wanted to try to make the top six playoff finals. Once I was able to get there as the No. 2 seed, I think it relieved any pressure I had and helped me stay calm. I think it gave me an advantage over someone like Mark Livingston, the league MVP.

“My ability to fill frames (with strikes or spares) let me jump out to an early lead and helped me a lot because I didn’t need to be striking every shot. I was in the driver’s seat with Mark having a couple early open frames. Although he quickly recovered, I left zero openings for him to take advantage of.”

Kuzniar was confident Johnson, who began bowling halfway through eighth grade, would have a strong showing at the WPIBL tournament. Johnson finished with a 200.3 average, 264 high game and 679 high series during the regular season.

“I thought Nick could do well. Did I think he could win it? Yes, but I was hoping for a good finish,” Kuzniar said. “If he didn’t finish in the top six, a top 20 would be a good improvement leading into his senior year.

“Nick didn’t open in his two games in the finals. He made the other bowlers press and have open frames. In the second game, he made a big split (2-4-6-10). Looking back, that conversion won him the tournament.”

As the No. 2 seed for the bracketed playoffs, he defeated third-seeded Ian Baker of East Allegheny, 202-182, before meeting No. 5 Livingston in the finals.

“Qualifying Game 1 was tough, but near the end, Nick said, ‘Coach, I think I found it.’ Nick was then so focused in Games 2 and 3, something I never saw in him before,” Kuzniar said. “He moved up to the No. 2 spot after three games. Now, I felt he could win this tournament.

“He got a bye in the first round of the stepladder finals. Once he started bowling, he didn’t need my help other than to keep his mind from getting in his way. I told him to focus only on his game. He had no control over what the other bowler was doing.”

Johnson was clutch in the 10th frame in the championship game against Livingston. He needed a mark and a high count on his next ball to gain an edge. He started off with a spare, then knocked down eight pins to clinch the title.

“I would have usually been nervous, especially on the spare,” Johnson said, “but I was just so locked in that I was surprisingly very calm and collected.”

Johnson, who placed 57th at last year’s WPIBL finals at Sims Lanes in Beaver Falls, made an immediate impact when he joined the bowling program at TJ.

Johnson chalked up a 171 averaged as a freshman, then improved to 185 as a sophomore before hitting the 200 plateau as a junior.

“I think I’ve come a long way since the start of this year, and if I could start the season over again, that average would be higher,” Johnson said.

Johnson hasn’t rolled a 300 game in his brief career but has tossed a pair of 279s (11 strikes, one 9 spare). He also has generated a 700 series a few times.

“Nick came to TJ bowling as a freshman and right off the bat, I knew I had something special,” Kuzniar said. “I was told he had only recently (within a year) picked up a bowling ball for the first time after watching bowling on TV. He was a two-handed bowler that I had to learn how to coach.

“The first year, he was very inconsistent. Year 2 (consisted of) a ball weight change, which brought back the inconsistency. This year, he started strong in practice and the first match. Then covid shut down everything.”

Following the shutdown, WPIBL action resumed in January. Johnson, who bowls five or six times per week, earned MVP honors in his section.

“Once bowling restarted, it was all matches with no practice,” Kuzniar said. “I knew Nick was getting plenty of bowling, between the high school league, junior league, travel league and tournaments.

“Nick never had a really bad day at the lanes.”

Johnson said the biggest influence as a bowler has been Jason Belmonte, a 37-year-old Australian star on the PBA Tour.

“Jason Belmonte is the best bowler in the world,” Johnson said. “He created the two-handed style which I use. A lot of my form is influenced by him and from watching him on YouTube. Analyzing his form and implementing into my game has really helped me.

“Also, he’s shown that two-handed bowling is a legitimate style that can be used to win at the highest level.”

Johnson certainly proved it this season.

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