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Evanston’s boys bowling team made history last weekend by capturing the Central Suburban League tournament championship for the first time ever.
But the Wildkits didn’t stop there.
Coach Harold Bailey’s team continued their assault on the school record book Saturday, Jan. 15, in Mundelein, winning the first Illinois High School Association regional tournament championship in program history and advancing the entire squad to next Saturday’s Glenbard East Sectional.
ETHS outscored host Stevenson 6302 to 6150 in the 12-team field, rallying from a slight (22-pin) deficit in the final game and posting a clinching pinfall of 1131 in that decisive game six.
Evanston’s total score ranks among the top six efforts turned in at the regional competition in the state to date. The Wildkits may not be the best team inIllinois, but so far no team has been more consistent.
Saturday, the Kits counted all five individual entrants in the top 12 at the regional eliminations. Junior Clayton Krasinski (226-235-207-204-247) led the way in fourth place at 1291, followed by senior teammates Justin Davis, fifth at 216-211-223-248-1284; John Leibforth, eighth at 203-235-210-213-201-1252; Andrew Bartol, ninth at 247-214-222-1243; and Isaac Clay-Barbour, 12th at 206-215-256-213-1232.
Zev Grodzin qualified for state as an individual back in 2020 for the Wildkits and Bailey said that effort helped set the performance bar for this veteran group of bowlers in the current season.
“This group has been pretty consistent all season,” Bailey said. “They’ve matured a lot. We started off the year talking about being consistent and using Zev Grodzin as our example. We wanted to model the whole group after him. The biggest thing we tried to get over to them was that consistency we wanted, to be able to fill in those frames and pick up spares even when we weren’t throwing strikes.
“I remember four years ago when they came in here as little freshmen and they were throwing balls in the gutter and didn’t know where the ball would go. Now they’re a good, solid team and they don’t crack under pressure. I’m really happy for them and this is definitely quite an accomplishment. To see the smiles on their faces and on their families’ faces today, it was like watching a band of brothers celebrate.”
The Evanston coach pointed to the improvement of Leibforth and Krasinski as the biggest difference for what has become a tournament-tested squad.
He coached Leibforth on the freshman soccer team and now the dark-haired senior has become a “go-to” performer on the lanes whenever the Wildkits need someone to rise to the occasion.
“John is definitely our most improved bowler,” Bailey said. “If you’re a good listener in this sport, you can figure some things out for yourself, and sometimes I’ll think about saying something to John and he’s already fixed it. He’s a smart guy and it’s fun to watch him process things. He’s able to analyze a situation and make the right moves.
“And there have been a couple of times this year where I’ve told him, ‘I need you to punch out [strike out] to get to 1,000 [team score]’ and he’ll say, ‘I’ve got you, coach.’ And boom, he does it! He’s out there still throwing strikes at the end and that means the other team can’t catch up.”
Krasinski, meanwhile, has earned the leadoff position in the team’s lineup this winter and has thrived in that role.
“I call him The Intimidator because of the way he goes out there and sets the tone for us,” Bailey said. “When you see Clayton go out there and start throwing strikes right away, that can be intimidating for the other teams. There’s just something about the way he hits those pins that sends a shock through the whole alley. Everyone on this team has a role, and he knows what his job is and he relishes it. Everyone else has to follow the leader.”
Evanston had all but clinched a spot in the sectional by game six Saturday, since the top four teams automatically advanced. But the Wildkits weren’t going to settle for second best to anyone, not even a Stevenson team that featured individual champion Jackson Sher (1401 series).
“I told them, ‘We’ve been consistent all day, just stay with it and you can go out and win this,’” said Bailey, regarding his brief pep talk. “That was all I needed to say – if you want it, go out and get it. I knew our destiny was in our hands and I wasn’t really fazed with what Stevenson was doing.
“Then Clay got a strike, and Justin got a strike, and that started the hit parade.”
Six teams will advance to the Illinois High School Association state finals out of each of the four sectionals and Bailey believes it’s time for the color orange – make that Evanston Orange – to be fully represented at state.
“It’s a different feeling for us now, when other teams see us walk in and say, ‘Uh-oh, here comes that orange team,’” he said. “Our sectional will be tough, but if we keep going at a consistent pace, I’m pretty hopeful we can put our best foot forward and get Downstate.
“Getting individual qualifiers for state is cool, but we all want to enjoy it together, as a family. That’s the ultimate goal.”