August 1, 2019
By KIRSTIN TAYLOR
Rutherford County Schools
The 2018-2019 school year was a landmark season for a talented group of Smyrna High School bowlers.
The team, coached by SHS teacher Carl Syler and Smyrna Bowling Center Youth Director Kelly Marlin, went undefeated in regular season play and won the TSSAA championship, which qualified them for U.S. High School Bowling National Championship.
Playing on the national stage presented both the players and the coaches with an array of emotions and challenges.
“Getting to travel to a different state, there were a lot more people and more teams there,” said rising junior Blake Davis.
“You’ve just kind of got to get it out of your head when you bowl. Just think of it the same and bowl the same,” added James Boone, also a rising junior at Smyrna.
Contrary to what one might think, the team actually carried a more relaxed collective mindset into the national championship than the state championship, said Aaron Roe, one of the team’s two rising seniors.
“When we did state, it was really high intensity for us because we’ve always wanted to claim that No. 1 title and we’ve kept getting close — second place or third,” he said. “But when we went to nationals, we just kind of thought of doing our best and seeing what (happened). We kept our head in it and, well, we pulled through and became No. 1.”
Heading into the national competition, that relative lack of intensity had Coach Kelly Marlin on edge.
“If anything, the students, going toward nationals, were very relaxed, very confident in their abilities. They did a lot of practice. They worked very, very hard. My fear was that they might have been too relaxed but, in the end, when you break a national record on your first game out of the chute, it kind of makes the coach a little more relaxed,” he shared.
Throughout the season, Marlin recognized a “quiet confidence” among the team that had its roots in the amount of experience the upperclassmen brought to the table.
“This group of seniors had finished second in the state, second in the state, third in the state, then won the state,” Marlin said. “They knew they stacked up pretty well in Tennessee and Tennessee stacks up very well nationally with its bowlers.”
SHS sponsor and coach Carl Syler echoed Marlin’s sentiments.
“I knew we had the best team. My greatest fear was we would beat ourselves,” the coach said.
As they prepared to compete against the country’s best, the coaches and team members capitalized on the group’s wealth of talent and experience using practices to focus on team building and “Baker games,” a style of play in which each team has a five-bowler rotation for the game’s 10 frames.
The time spent fortifying team bonds proved beneficial for maintaining morale during the stress of high-level competition.
“In my opinion, the reason we won state and nationals is because we’re so close. I don’t think we could have done it if we weren’t as close to a family as we are,” Davis said.
“We’re there for each other,” Roe added. “If one of us got a little out of shape, a little out of hand, a little in our heads, got mad, we just kept pushing ourselves out of that. (The coaches) are always there to back us up and correct. We’re there to help each other.”
That strong collective identity, however, was troubled by the fact that, due to TSSAA rules, the team could not represent Smyrna High School at the championship and had to compete as an independent, non-school affiliated entity.
Blake Davis was surprised but ultimately unfazed by the restriction.
“It was a shock to me that they wouldn’t let us (represent SHS). I mean, all of us are from Smyrna High School so we should be able to represent it … In my opinion it doesn’t matter what name is on our jersey, what matters is who we are and what we are capable of doing.”
“They always bowl a little bit better… when they feel like they’re the underdogs, causes them to pull together a little bit better,” Coach Syler said.
“I think it made them more focused,” Coach Marlin agreed. “They were more determined to represent all of Smyrna and all of Rutherford County since they could not represent Smyrna High School. They kind of saw it as a chance to represent an area rather than just their school. I guess in those terms, we turned a negative into a positive.”
Not only did they turn a negative into a positive, they made history in more ways than one by scoring a record 1,236 points in the first match of national tournament play and winning the boys’ division with a co-ed team.
Rising sophomore Elizabeth Coutta, who is currently the second-highest ranked high school girls’ bowler in the nation, was integral to the team’s unprecedented victory. Her teammates and coaches had high praise for her contributions.
“A lot of teams nowadays are not co-ed,” James Boone said. “We are one of the only ones, so it’s really cool to see a co-ed team become No. 1.”
PHOTO / KIRSTIN TAYLOR