Justin Hess was just 4 years old and weighed just 35 pounds the first time he picked up and threw a bowling ball with two hands.
Now a junior at O’Fallon High School and one of the top players on a strong Panthers bowling team, Hess still has the rather unorthodox style of throwing the ball with two hands.
“It’s just the way I started bowling. The way I was able to throw the ball when I was younger,” said Hess, 17. “I stayed with it because it was comfortable for me and how I bowled the best.”
Averaging just over 209 for the season and coming off a strong performance at the Herrin Sectional a week ago, where he averaged 228 for his six games to take top individual honors, Hess seems to be at his best heading into competition at the IHSA boys state bowling tournament, which begins Friday at St. Clair Bowl in O’Fallon.
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A member of the Belleville East squad the last two years, Hess will be making his third appearance at the state finals. Hess bowled on a Lancers team which placed ninth at the 2013 state finals and a year ago, he finished a solid 22nd individually, averaging over 217 for 12 games.
But this year the goals are a little higher.
Stronger and more mature, Hess will also have the advantage of competing on the Panthers home lanes of St. Clair Bowl.
“Bowling for Belleville East at Bel-Air Bowl the last two years and then switching over to St. Clair this year was an adjustment for me,” Hess said. “The bowlers on the team accepted me, but I knew them from bowling against them the last couple of years. It was tough leaving (Belleville) East though. Coach (Marcus) Barriger was like a second father to me. He was always there to help.
“There was an adjustment in the lane conditions as well going from Bel-Air to St. Clair. But Coach (Mike) Imes has been great in helping me make the adjustments as the season has gone on. I’m comfortable here now. I’m excited about the state tournament this weekend, because I think we have a strong chance of doing well. My goal is to be in the top 10 this year. I’m thinking I’ll have to average 220 or better to do it.”
Hess has been a key for the Panthers squad, which won the Southwestern Conference this season. Teaming with Bradley Solomon and Andrew Orf on what has become the top trio in the Southern Illinois High School Bowling Conference, Hess has fit right in and helped fill the void left by the graduation of all-state bowler Billy Goodman a year ago.
“I think there were some nerves there at first. A new team, new coaches, a different bowling center. But Justin has done a great job. In fact I think he’s excited because he sees that we have a chance to do well as a team at state,” Imes said. “It just took him time to adjust. He had bowled at Bel-Air Bowl and when he transferred to O’Fallon he had to adjust to a different shot here at St. Clair Bowl. We’ve gone through some equipment changes and worked on some others things to make him more comfortable to where he needs to be.
“Bowling with two hands isn’t a negative thing or a positive thing. It’s just the way he was taught how to bowl. He’s very accurate with it.”
The youngest of five children, all of whom bowled at the high school level, Justin Hess hopes to follow his sisters and bowl at the college level.
“My uncle taught my dad how to bowl and then he taught his five kids. We’ve all bowled for a long time,” Hess said. “I would like to bowl at the college level. My sister Ashley went to college out in St. Charles, (Mo.). I’m thinking maybe I’d like to go there.”