Alabama High School Bowling is more than a game—it’s about community

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AHSAA Oak Mountain Lanes
Tommy Barberini, General Manager at Oak Mountain Lanes. Photo by Pat Byington for Bham Now

Nearly every high school in Alabama has a football stadium that can double and sometimes triple as a soccer field or a place to run track. Basketball and volleyball teams have their gyms on campus. Many schools have baseball and softball fields nearby.

There is one high school sport in the state that depends entirely on a local neighborhood business…bowling.

Read on to learn about one of the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s (AHSAA) newest championship sports and the community it inspires and builds.

Upcoming State Championship

On January 28-29, Oak Mountain Lanes will be hosting the AHSAA State Finals for the fifth time since bowling became a championship sport in 2016.

Oak Mountain Lanes

Recently, we met up with Tommy Barberini, General Manager of Oak Mountain Lanes. 

The Barberini family has owned and operated the popular 32-lane bowling establishment off U.S. Highway 31 in Pelham for 17 years this coming March. 

An early proponent of high school bowling, Barberini served on an AHSAA committee that helped develop bowling as a championship sport. 

Why Bowling?

AHSAA
Sparkman High School bowler in January 2020. Photo via AHSAA

He provided us some background about the history and evolution of the sport.

“There are two aspects to bowling: the recreational side and the sports side. Bowling’s heyday was in the 80s. It was the place you went to socialize before social media.

High school bowling keeps the sports side of bowling alive. It’s the next generation of league bowlers. Getting to see these kids—it’s an adventure. They are cheering and high fiving, screaming and yelling. It is so fun to watch.”

When it comes to high school bowling, Oak Mountain Lanes is “all in.” Eleven local schools, including four middle schools, call it home. In total, 26 boys’ and girls’ teams practice and compete at Oak Mountain Lanes Monday through Friday from 3PM to 5PM.

“I don’t know if we would have a program if Oak Mountain Lanes wasn’t here,” said Chris Hollingsworth, coach of the reigning AHSAA champion boys bowling team Thompson High School in Alabaster.

Local bowling alleys are the lifeblood of high school bowling.

AHSAA
Bowling at Oak Mountain Lanes. Photo via Matthew Niblett

Vestavia Hills High School Bowling Coach Todd Evans, whose boys’ team won the 2019 state championship, added, “It is one thing to have a bowling alley, but more importantly to have owners that support high school bowling. In Vestavia, we have two great owners Ryan and Angela Nance that run Vestavia Bowl. It’s a community. They make our kids feel at home.”

Keeping Everyone Safe

AHSAA
Bowling at Oak Mountain Lanes. Photo via Matthew Niblett

As we all know, because of the COVID-19 pandemic it has been a trying year for all of us— particularly for bowling establishments.  

“We closed our doors for 63 days in early 2020,” Barberini said about the national shutdown in the spring of 2020.  “We are a family-owned business. It takes a toll. The pandemic has certainly been challenging. We’ve got to do everything we can do to keep everyone safe while they are in our facility. I feel that we have done a good job with that. We have not had to shut our doors because of customers or employees getting COVID.”

Those efforts have paid off.

“COVID has really thrown a wrench in things,” explained Thompson’s Hollingsworth. “We’ve had to do a lot of adjustments to be able to have the season. We are excited to have a season and try to keep everything as safe as possible. It is almost a normal season.”

State Championship—Magic Happens

AHSAA
Sparkman High School Bowling team in January 2020. Photo via AHSAA

In previous years, all the schools with bowling programs competed against each other at Oak Mountain Lanes—from the smallest classification, 1A, through the largest, 7A. This year, there will be two divisions crowning champions. One championship is for 1A to 5A schools and another championship is for 6A and 7A schools.

In addition to that change, this year’s AHSAA Bowling Championship on January 28-29 promises to be memorable. In bowling, you have to expect the unexpected.

At the very first championship in 2016, a student-athlete named Johnny Kilgo from Gadsden City High School rolled a perfect 300 game—all strikes.

Here is a video about the accomplishment which appeared on CBS 42.

It was the first year of the tournament and he hadn’t even been starting for the team,” Barberini said describing the moment.  “He comes out and bowls a perfect game. I told the AHSAA folks, this is such a rarity, you have no idea what a rarity this is and for this to happen in the first state championship. It is not going to get much better than this.”

More Than a Game

Coach Hollingsworth summed up the impact bowling has had on his students.

A lot of the time bowling gives those kids that don’t follow the traditional sports, such as football and basketball, an opportunity to be successful and excel. And when they fall in love with it, they get good. 

“The kids that I have now, I’ve had them since the 7th grade. You can see an amazing change. They become more self-confident, it is absolutely incredible to watch how it builds them up. Not everyone can play football. Not everyone has that type of frame or mentality or the skills for basketball. You can bowl into your 90s. It is a sport you can continue forever, and it will make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Community Effort

AHSAA
AHSAA championship bowling in January 2020. Photo via AHSAA

Every state championship brings a community together and this is no different. Barberini says the City of Pelham has been very supportive, providing fire, EMS and police services, as well as a shuttle bus for overflow parking.

“The city of Pelham has really had our back from day one. Without the support that they give us, we would not be able to do this.”

How to Watch

Because of Covid restrictions, there are limitations on attendance this year. One way to watch this year’s championships on January 28-29 is to livestream the championship matches on the NFHS Network and AHSAA TV Network.

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  • Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.