High school bowling rolls on with masks, spacing and likely no spectators

'It's really going to make it a different environment ... but the bowling itself won't change'

Wrestling season has been pinned as high-risk and moved until later in the school year.

The fate of basketball season is still hanging on the rim, but it looks increasingly likely to miss the winter as well.

Prep bowling season, though?

It's rolling on.

Designated a low-risk sport by the Illinois Department of Public Health [IDPH], high school bowling has been cleared on a statewide level to open practice Monday and begin competition Nov. 30. As with everything in the 2020-21 school year, there are some changes — a shortened schedule, limitations on opponents and spectators, girls and boys seasons starting at the same time, no high-fiving or fist bumps, an uncertain IHSA postseason — but schools around the state are still planning to set 'em up and knock 'em down.

Bowling is unique, however, in that competitions are held within private businesses, meaning that IHSA COVID-19 guidelines and school board decisions must coincide with the state's requirements for bowling proprietors and each individual lane's house rules during the pandemic.

Luckily, more often than not those different standards have lined up, making for what looks as if it will be a smooth transition when the kids hit the lanes.

"When high school gets going, they'll be spread out by whatever we need to spread out for," said Brian Kolberg, owner of Mardi Gras Lanes in DeKalb and an assistant bowling coach for Sycamore High School. "We might have a pair of lanes going and then skip the next four if we have room. We can utilize the entire bowling center to its max. League bowling has really been working nicely for us.

"We won't know our exact guidelines for high school until it starts and we know how many kids are there ... but I believe all of the IHSA requirements are ones we're already utilizing in order to stay open. ... I think the IHSA used [the state's guidance] as blueprint for it already."

The life's blood of the bowling industry, local adult leagues have provided an excellent trial run for the coming high school season.

"In leagues, certainly wearing a mask when in the building is different, and everybody is trying to get used to that," Al Nordman, former Oregon High School coach and owner of both Dixon's Plum Hollow Lanes and Mt. Morris' Town and Country Lanes, said. "In adult leagues we have a little more flexibility with that as far as the food and beverage aspect.

"In high school bowling, they're all going to be wearing a mask 100% of the time. And for us, there will be no spectators. That's a big difference."

Whether spectators will be allowed is a school-by-school, bowling center-by-bowling center decision.

Facilities with smaller capacities such as the four-lane Streator Elks, home of the Streator Bowlin' Bulldogs, cannot house spectators under current coronavirus guidelines. Even some larger lanes, such as Plum Hollow, site of the early-season Oregon Tournament, also will not allow spectators — there by decision of the Oregon High school board — in addition to spacing out competitors.

"It's really going to make it a different environment ... but the bowling itself won't change," Nordman said.

"I don't see us getting anywhere near our allowed capacity [just under 200] during any of our high school meets with the restrictions we'll have in place," said Kolberg, whose lanes serves as home for Sycamore, DeKalb and Kaneland high schools.

Other proprietors will have a bit more time to make sure their guidelines line up with those of the IHSA, IDPH and their local school boards. A trend in recent days has seen schools responding to the rising number of COVID-19 cases by postponing the start of practices until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

That includes archrivals Ottawa and La Salle-Peru high schools — the latter of which shares The Super Bowl in Peru with St. Bede Academy as its home facility.

"With spacing and masks and checking all the kids' temperatures and us sanitizing everything, it should be pretty similar to leagues," Joe Zokal, co-owner of The Super Bowl, said. "When they come in, everything's clean; and when they leave, we sanitize everything. We try to stay extra vigilant."

That includes keeping up with the ever-changing guidance coming down from the IHSA, the IDPH and the governor's office, which could alter things even further when things get rolling.

"They keep changing things," Zokal said. "It's very difficult to determine everything they want us to do all the time."

"It's going to be an interesting challenge," said Nordman.

So far, though, so good, if leagues are any indication.

"We are pretty strict when it comes to [COVID restrictions]," Kolberg said, "but we do it in a nice manner. We're pretty proud of that."

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