DECATUR — Watching Eisenhower senior Alexia Johnson hurl her bowling ball down the lane, it's hard to imaging that when she joined the Panthers' bowling team she knew next to nothing of the sport.
Classmates mentioned the team to her and said she should give it a try, but those first practices were pretty rough.
"I didn’t know anything about bowling when I started. The ball would end up in the gutter every time but it got easier for me," said Johnson while taking a break from the team's practice at Spare Time Lanes.
With just a little bit of practice, it became clear that Johnson was a gifted bowler. As a sophomore and junior, Johnson advanced as an individual to the sectionals in the state bowling tournament (all schools are combined into a single class), and this year she's hoping to lead the Panthers to sectionals as a team.
"I think we have a good chance of qualifying and so hopefully I’m not alone this season," Johnson said. "It is going really well this season and we all work well together."
Eisenhower coach Rob Baser said Johnson picked the game up quickly.
"She’s just a natural," Baser said. "She learned how to swing the ball and roll it the right way right away."
The Panthers (6-1 in match play) sport nine bowlers and the team grows by word of mouth from student-to-student.
"We usually have the girls recruiting the freshmen to come out," Baser said. "I also coach in the youth league so I try to get girls out that way. It’s all word of mouth."
Baser and assistant coach Gary Palas are both Decatur bowling greats — Palas was inducted into the Decatur Bowling Hall of Fame in 1989 and Baser in 2014 — and Palas was inducted into the Illinois Bowling Hall of Fame in 2004.
Johnson's experience of joining the team with little experience isn't unusual. The coaches are used to starting from scratch.
"Some students have bowled in youth leagues but most of them have never really bowled before," Baser said. "We start training at zero and some of them are pretty rough and can’t even hit the lane at first. But they figure it out and become a power bowler."
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During practice coaches stress putting scores and averages out of their mind.
"We teach different techniques and drills on how to bowl," Baser said. "(Students) get frustrated with us because we don’t care about scores in practice. We just worry about how they bowl. If you learn to bowl well the scores will come."
Palas has enjoyed watching Johnson develop into one of the best youth bowlers in Decatur.
"She’s the throws the strongest ball of the group I would say and she can adapt to different conditions," he said. "One thing I like about her is that if you tell her to move over and throw it over the third arrow, she can do it very easily."
Adapting to different conditions will be key for the Panthers at this season's Taylorville Regional, which will be held at Spare Time Lanes on Feb. 2.
"It’s different because it is loud and at sectionals it is super loud," Johnson said. "As a solo bowler I'm not really cheering, so throughout the day it can get to you and hearing everyone cheer it is hard to focus."
Senior Ashley Russell, who originally approached Johnson about joining the squad three years ago, was a freshman when the Panthers last advanced beyond regionals. While Johnson might throw the strongest ball, Russell keeps the team hyped.
"Ashley's a good leader," Johnson said. "We don’t officially have a captain this year but she has definitely filled that leadership role. She makes sure the girls stay pumped up. I’m not good at that so she will start the cheers and have us be loud at all the games."
Russell embraces the role of team booster and knows how important it is.
"The further you advance in the playoffs it gets louder and louder because the better teams are always the louder teams and so that is why I try to get them to cheer so much," she said. "Before all of our matches I always have my pep talks. The one game we lost (against Pana on Jan. 3) was the one game that I wasn’t at and they all said they missed my pep talks."
Russell has little doubt in her team taking that next step his season.
"This is a really good year for us — we’ve improved a lot," she said. "I have complete faith in us that we can advance from the regional because all of the teams that will be at the regional we have beaten them before so I know what we can. We are going to do it."