Just three years after starting the program at W.F. West, the coach has guided the Bearcats to their first 2A Evergreen Conference Championship. Don’t be surprised if that turns out to be the first of many titles W.F. West captures this year as the team heads into postseason play. Their rapidly growing list of accomplishments includes a strong chance of adding a district and state title.
“Everything has changed around here since our first season,” said senior Ellie Bunker, the coach’s niece and one of their top players. “When we started out, we weren’t the best team my sophomore year.”
Which is understandable as the Bearcats’ program was just in its infancy. Don was simply looking to fill a roster, a task which proved to be relatively easy as there was no shortage of excitement for the addition of the new sport.
One problem, however, was many of the players that first season had never participated in the sport before. They all have proven to be quick studies. The Bearcats finished third overall as a team at last year’s 2A state championships with Ellie Bunker claiming fourth in the individual standings.
They’ve only improved since.
“We’ve gone from just learning how to compete to becoming the team to beat,” Don said. “What makes our team so successful is we have really solid bowlers 1-10. Our JV often beats our opponent’s varsity scores, which really shows our depth. Our girls are always competing for varsity spots at practice but are also very supportive of each other at the same time. This competitive environment has the girls really pushing themselves to improve individually.”
W.F. West wrapped up the EvCo title and improved its overall record to a perfect 14-0 with a victory over Rochester, 2,181-1,508, on January 15. It marked the 10th time this season the Bearcats have surpassed 2,000 total pins during a meet.
“Our bowlers are motivated to get better at every practice,” Don said. “Last year our team goal was to shoot 1,850 total pins in a match, which we hit about 50 percent of the time. This year our goal is to score 2,000 total pins or better, which is a very lofty goal.”
While the coach was admittingly skeptical at the beginning of the season, the team has achieved this total on a regular basis surpassing the mark 10 out of 13 matches.
The team opened the year by posting a season-high 2,217 in its first win over conference foe Rochester. They also put up 2,121 in a victory over two-time defending state champion Mark Morris before edging last year’s conference champion Black Hills, 2,088-1,907.
“I think we were coming in feeling pretty good about how we were going to do this year,” Ellie Bunker said. “Just to get that win over Black Hills, that really boosted our confidence. It made us realize this is something we can do.”
During the Bearcats’ second win over Tumwater, a 2,156-1,551 triumph on January 13, Piper Chalmers continued her breakout freshman season by rolling a 279 in the second game, while senior Kelsey Stritmatter bowled a season-high 257.
An uncooperative 10 pin in the seventh frame was the only thing standing between her and her first career 300 game. It was one of several times Chalmers has flirted with perfection as she also posted a team-high 288 this season.
“It was actually kind of intimidating coming into the season because I was playing against older girls,” said Chalmers, who has been bowling for 10 years. “It’s been a lot of fun getting to bowl with new people and become part of this team. It really is impressive how they built this program up from scratch.”
Chalmers paces the squad with a hefty 193 average. Ellie Bunker isn’t far behind at 190.
While most teams suffer considerable drop-offs from the top of its roster, the Bearcats have as many as eight players who could compete for a varsity slot. Junior Brianna Powe and sophomore Cami Aldrich both average 170 a game, while senior Stritmatter, who placed 12th at state in 2019, and junior Jessica Loflin average 160. Rounding out the list is freshman Clara Bunker and freshman Anahbelle Lopez, who average 144 a game.
“Our team is very focused on winning and improving,” Don said. “The defining characteristic of this team would be their work ethic. They all bowl five days a week and then most of them are bowling on the weekends practicing on their own. They are talented but more than that the team is very selfless.”
With their first conference crown already wrapped up, the Bearcats will look to add some more hardware this season. The team will host the district championships at Fairway Lanes in Centralia before heading to the state championships on February 6-8 at the Narrows Plaza Bowl in University Place.