In the world of bowling, St. Clair Bowl is an MVP.
The 40-year-old O’Fallon business will host nine major tournaments this season and has been steadily gaining in stature.
Not only is it highly regarded as home to the national champion McKendree Bearcats, but also the O’Fallon Panthers boys and girls bowling teams, numerous local schools and conferences, and several state and national tournaments that are helping its reputation grow.
In 1996-1997, eight schools used the bowling center. Today, 31 schools, who are part of four different conferences, call it home.
Owner Matt Shellabarger and full-time youth director Mike Imes have laid a foundation and are seeing the results of their hard work pay off, as the calendar fills up with major events.
“We make the effort to fill the lanes,” Shellabarger said. “We’re constantly looking for ways to bring in new business.”
Hosting teams, tournaments
They host the boys Illinois High School Association’s state finals this January and the Southern Illinois Junior High School Athletic Association finals annually in March.
Shellabarger said one of the year’s highlights for him is the wheelchair division of high school bowling competition — the students have been competing for five years there.
St. Clair’s biggest tournament yet is set for next summer. They will host the third national championships, sponsored by the U.S. High School Bowling Foundation, June 23-25. The three-day event has both individual and team competitions.
The influx of bowlers is expected to have considerable impact on the local economy — for food, lodging, travel and entertainment while families are here.
“It’s a big deal. It’s 50 girls, 50 boys from each state, and about 1,000 individuals,” Imes said. “The economic benefit (to the area) could be staggering — an estimated $1.1 million during the full three days. It’s going to be a win-win for us and for the local economy.”
Both Imes and Shellabarger believe in networking and making connections at whatever events they attend.
“We hear from people: ‘We love this place,’ ” Imes said.
“Being as outgoing as Mike is, he has built a reputation as ‘doing a good job.’ Tour directors tell us they can sit back and enjoy the tourney because we make it seamless,” Shellabarger said. “We go out of our way to make sure it’s business as usual, across the board. We make sure we’re fully staffed. Our staff is super-friendly. We’re very accommodating. We want to surpass expectations.”
“Everybody does their part to make sure it’s successful. It’s a team effort,” said Imes.
Teaching the next generation
It’s rare that a bowling center employs a full-time youth director, but Shellabarger believes that youth programs are a key to the future.
The busy time, from late August to late April, is when leagues and schools are competing. But summer is where their youth bowling work kicks into high gear.
“It’s great for the kids in the community. We want them to come, have a good time, and improve. They have opportunities to play in junior high and high school, and we think those who participate in our youth programs have such an advantage over those who don’t,” said Imes, who also coaches the O’Fallon Township High School boys bowling team. “We get to be part of their success. Colleges can come knocking at their door.”
Youth activities continue all year, though. The benefits of participating in a team sport are many, he noted.
“It’s that team chemistry. They’re part of a group. They work with others, They learn how to compete. They get competition experience,” Imes said. “The more they learn, the better they’re going to be.”
Imes loves the challenge.
“We watch them grow up,” he said.
Imes pointed out a local 12-year-old who came in second at the Junior Gold National Championships.
“(He) started as a bumper thumper, travels and goes to tournaments, and reached the pinnacle,” Imes said.
He also mentioned Andrew Orf, of O’Fallon. As a junior, Orf placed third at the IHSA state bowling tournament, helping OTHS to a third-place team finish. He was a member of the last three Panthers teams to place in the top five for five years in a row.
On July 22, he bowled a 300 game during the Bowling.com Youth Open Championships.
The McKendree Women’s Bowling team won the NCAA national championship earlier this year, a fact their home turf proudly displays. Coach Shannon O’Keefe said she is pleased with their partnership.
“We don’t work with Mike too often. However, when we, do it’s always a great experience. He is willing to do anything for you, and he has an incredible way of making you feel like the most important person in the facility,” she said. “We are so beyond grateful for our relationship with St. Clair Bowl. Over the past several years, we have become the most successful collegiate program in the country, and we would not be able to do that without the help and support of St Clair Bowl, Matt, and all the employees.”
Family & Community
Shellabarger purchased the company from Phil Hammann, his father-in-law, in 2003. Just as Hammann stressed, customer service is still a priority.
“We have an open-door policy. We do not want anyone walking out of here upset,” he said.
“It’s simple. Our job is to make sure customers have a good time when they are here,” said Imes, who has been bowling since he was 7 years old.
“My mom worked at the bowling alley,” he said.
He continued to bowl throughout his life, including his Air Force career that brought him to the area. He retired as a senior master sergeant.
“I love the sport,” he said, noting that he is appreciative of all the opportunities he’s had from it.
He and his family have lived in O’Fallon for more than 20 years. He began coaching at OTHS when his daughter was in high school.
“It’s fun to interact with the kids. The fun part is all the different levels we have — youth bowling, junior high programs, high school kids.”
His secret to coaching, he said, is to keep the kids focused.
“They’re like sponges. I want to develop what they have. Nobody bowls the same. We want to take the skills they have and make them feel important, let them see what they need to do to get better,” he said. “I like being part of their lives, a good role model.”
In addition to good working relationship with the schools, both Imes and Shellabarger complimented the city of O’Fallon on its relationship with the business.
Civic organizations and community groups also partner with St. Clair Bowl. The Special Olympics, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Knights of Columbus, Elks Clubs and others host events there.
And, even if it’s just a group for a night out with the girls or the guys, there is always room.
“Our seating design is not that old, fiberglass horseshoe. We have our lanes arranged so people can sit around a table. It’s more for interacting with people. We want them to be happy to be here,” he said.
Bowling is for all ages, Imes said.
“It’s a sport for a lifetime. I’ve been doing it for 58 years!” he said.
At a glance
St. Clair Bowl features:
▪ There are 50 lanes, with some available for open play even when tournaments and leagues are happening.
▪ There’s a full-service pro shop. The Beer Frame Lounge has three pool tables, 11 Radikal dart machines, steel-tip dart boards, and more.
▪ Trixie’s Gaming Parlor has adult-only video gaming.
▪ Treasure Island arcade has many video games.
▪ An all-day café available.
▪ There’s also a private event space for birthday parties, special-occasion parties, youth events, lessons and fund-raising opportunities.
Address: 5950 Old Collinsville Road, Fairview Heights
Hours: 9 a.m. to midnight, daily