Heading into the postseason as one of the favorites to win the Illinois High School Association Boys State Bowling Tournament is nothing new for the O’Fallon Panthers.
Under the leadership of coach Mike Imes, who also is the Southern Illinois High School Bowling Conference Commissioner, O’Fallon has been the top boys bowling program in the state the past four years, placing no worse then fifth in the state finals and earning the second-place trophy in 2013 and third-place award in 2014.
But still the state championship, somehow, has eluded the Panthers.
“We’ve been close the past few years. For some reason we just haven’t been able to close it out,” Imes said. “I will say that this team is different in that it’s without question, the most cohesive group we’ve had. When one of them has struggled, there has always been someone else to pick them up with a big game. But those times have been few and far between this year.”
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O’Fallon will look to take that first step towards that elusive state championship on Saturday when they compete in the Columbia Regional at West Park Bowl. The first three-game session is set to begin at 9 a.m. with the second three game block set for a little past noon.
And while host Columbia, along with perennial powers Cahokia, Belleville East and Belleville West, figure to be in the hunt, the Panthers are clearly the team to beat. Undefeated and untested during the regular season, the Panthers have four of the top seven bowlers in the SIHSBC and are averaging more than 1,100 pins per game.
O’Fallon broke the state (3 game) record of 3,490 earlier this season when it rolled an amazing score of 3,540 and have already clinched the Southwestern Conference title with a 10-0 mark.
The Panthers have three bowlers back from their team which fnished fifth in the state finals a year ago. Senior Justin Hess leads the way with a 227 average, while juniors Andrew Orf (225) and Bradley Soloman (224) close behind. Josh Bradshaw (218) and Matthew Toohey (210) round out the Panthers lethal starting five.
“It’s been a fun year. Not only are these good bowlers but they’re great kids to be around. They’re all very coachable,” Imes said. “The thing about it is that we’ve got four or five kids just waiting for their chance to bowl on the varsity right now. This is a very special group.”
While many of the top teams in Southern Illinois High School Bowling Conference will be competing in the Columbia Regional on Saturday, regionals are also being hosted by Collinsville and Taylorville HIgh Schools. The top four teams and top 10 individuals not on those teams from all three regionals will advance to the Cahokia Sectional on Jan. 23.
The 2016 IHSA Boys State Bowling Tournament will be held Jan. 29-30 at St. Clair Bowl in O’Fallon.
Following is a brief glimpse at the top area teams and individuals who will compete in the Collinsville and Taylorville Regionals.
Always a threat in the postseason, Collinsville will also have the advantage of bowling on their home lanes when action begins at 9 a.m. at Camelot Bowl.
Runner-up to five-time defending SWC champion O’Fallon in league competition this season, the Kahoks were 8-2 in matches and feature a deep and talented squad with seven of its top 10 bowlers averaging 200 or better. Clay Hartman, ranked among the top 10 in the SIHSBC, leads the Kahoks attack with a 222 average wile Hayden Juenger (215) is a close second. Bryce Ray (208), Andy Flanagan (208) and Eric Mielke (206) round out the Collinsville starting lineup.
Mater Dei, Metro-East Lutheran, Father McGivney, Granite City, Highland, Lebanon, Wesclin and Triad are also in the field. Of those teams, Triad and Highland — second and third respectively in the Mississippi Valley Conference — have perhaps the best chance of any local teams to challenge Collinsville.
Triad is led by one of the elite bowlers in the state in Gavin Pisetta (221) and Ryan Harman (201) while Highland’s best are Jordan Buske (213), Collin Korte (209) and Brandon Munie (207).
Edwardsville and Alton are among the 10 teams which will compete at the Taylorville Regional which is set to begin at 9 a.m. at Spare Time Bowl in Decatur.
Edwardsville, which looks to rebound after a disappointing 1-7 record in the Southwestern Conference, is led by Tyler Cooper (188) and Hunter Noud (185). Alton, a middle of the pack team in the Southwestern Conference, will lean heavily on Jacob Donahue (206) and Matt Fritz (201).
Mississippi Valley Conference champion Jerseyville, along with Civic Memorial, Roxana and East Alton-Wood River are also competing in the regional.