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Unexpected Spark Fuels Bearcats to State Championship

By Eric Trent

etrent@chronline.com

UNIVERSITY PLACE — With a state championship slipping away, Don Bunker needed a spark. He found it in an unlikely place.

Bunker, W.F. West girls bowling coach, had watched his Bearcats cruise to a 274-pin lead after day one of the 1A/2A state championships Thursday, then winced as the it dwindled down to double digits Friday morning as Columbia River chiseled away with a barrage of 190 to 200 games.

“They were on our tails the entire tournament,” Bunker said. “We couldn’t shake them.”

The Bearcats were drained from a grueling previous day and an early Friday morning start.

So Bunker pulled his team aside after their sixth baker game, brought them into a circle and had them do something they’d never done before as a team: mental exercises.

Bunker told them to close their eyes, focus on deep breaths and meditate.

Breathe.

Just breathe.

Let the bad vibes out. Let them go. Forget the past.

It worked.

“Once we did that and we got into the next match, we bowled our best games that day,” freshman Piper Chalmers said. “It felt better to relax and not have so much pressure.”

Senior Ellie Bunker felt the effects immediately.

“That’s the point where everyone realized this is it,” Ellie said. “We definitely started bowling as a team after that.”

The rejuvenated Bearcats fended off Columbia River’s raging rally and upset bid to claim a 74-pin victory over the runner-up Chieftains, 7,355 to 7,281, and secure the first state title in program history.

In bowling, there’s no running score on the board so players have no idea what the pin count is mid-game. It only took a couple minutes after the 14th and final baker game for assistant coach Bob Spahr to announce to the Bearcats that the championship was theirs.

“We were excited, we felt pretty good,” Ellie said. “We’re just all really happy.”

The Bearcats were powered by four top-15 finishers, led by Chalmers, who placed third individually with 1,094 pins, just one shy of the second-place finisher. Senior Kelsey Stritmatter was fourth (1,052), junior Brianna Powe finished ninth (1,024) and senior Ellie Bunker came in 13th (976). Also scoring points for W.F. West was junior Jessica Loflin (654) and sophomore Cami Aldrich (654). Freshman Clara Bunker is the team’s seventh bowler but did not score at state.

“When I first found out I was really happy and proud of us that we worked so hard to become state champions,” Chalmers said.

It was a monumental moment for W.F. West girls bowling, which vaulted to the top of the state in just three short years of existence. Don, along with his father and assistant coach, Ron Bunker, petitioned W.F. West High School for nearly a decade to let them create girls bowling team. It wasn’t until the 2017-18 academic year when the school finally caved.

“We were pretty excited when they decided it would be a good opportunity for our girls to have something else to do,” Don said.

In that inaugural year, the team didn’t advance to state but did send two girls as individuals. The next year, 2019, the Bearcats exploded onto the stage, placing third as a team with Ellie Bunker leading the way with a fourth-place individual finish.

It was then that Bunker realized they were legitimate state contenders.

“We knew going into this season that we probably had a shot after last year,” Bunker said. “It could have been anyone’s state championship last year.”

The returning girls saw the potential, too, and it fueled them even more.

“We definitely knew we had a shot and went into the season with that mindset that we were going to be state champs,” Ellie said.

The Bearcats started this season hot, ripping off 15 straight wins to complete an undefeated regular season and capture the team’s first conference tite. The run included landmark victories over defending state champion Mark Morris and 2019 runner-up Black Hills.

The team then topped Columbia River by 262 pins in the district championships on Jan. 31 to claim their first district title program history.

It was more than just a team and coach effort to get to this point, Ellie said. The bowling community at Fairway Lanes, even league bowlers, banded together and attended matches to show support.

It’s been a fun ride, Don said, watching his team go from fledglings to frontrunners. When the team started three years ago not a single one had picked up a bowling ball. Now they’re state champions.

“We found girls who had the right mindset and who wanted to get better,” Bunker said. “It was an amazing season. I’m proud of the girls.”

The team loses two seniors from this team, Bunker and Stritmatter, but brings back a solid core of five underclassmen. But where does a team go once they’ve reached the top?

“Our goal next year is to improve our averages and work harder to become two-time state champions,” Chalmers said.

After this season, it’s hard to doubt them.

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