By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half
JACKSON – At Vandercook Lake, bowling is family.
The girls coach has a son and a nephew on the boys team.
The boys coach has a daughter who was part of three girls teams that won MHSAA Finals championships.
In fact, the girls have won five Finals titles – while the boys are still searching for their first.
And in the middle of it all, both teams had to find a new home.
OK, maybe it sounds a little like a dysfunctional family, but that is far from the truth. And this year, the boys have a high-scoring team that is capable of contending for that first championship.
“We're trying to bring one home for the boys,” sophomore Korey Reichard said. “We're trying to break that barrier.”
Vandercook Lake won the Division 4 title in girls bowling in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Reichard's sister Kelsea was on those teams, as was Malloree Ambs, daughter of boys coach Libie Ambs.
“My first year when I took over the boys, we were state runner-up,” Libie Ambs said. “It's always in the back of my head. My daughter bowled on three of those championships teams, so I know what's there, and I want one for the boys.”
Last year, Vandercook Lake made it to the Division 4 Semifinals before losing, and it lost just one person from that team. In December of 2015, the Jayhawks slipped into the state record book with a team game of 1,228 – No. 10 in state history, regardless of division, according to the Michigan High School Interscholastic Bowling Coaches Association. Four of the five bowlers on that team are back this winter.
Just a week ago, Reichard had a two-game total of 520 – a 260 average – but he was second on his team to senior Zach Cecil, who averaged 267 for a 534 two-game total.
Those explosive scores, paired with last year's runner-up finish and the school's rich tradition in bowling, make the Jayhawks a team to watch at most events, especially around Jackson.
“We've always said there is a target on our back,” Libie Ambs said. “People know about the program and what's coming out of it, and there are people who watch and pay attention to our scores.
“Some of the boys don't worry so much about it. I tell them to keep their composure. People are going to watch you and talk about you, and you are going to have big crowds behind you. Those are the things they need to get used to.”
Making a splash
Vandercook Lake is far from a one-person team, but one person has a better resume than the others: Reichard, who already has been featured in the “Faces in the Crowd” section of Sports Illustrated. On Jan. 21, 2012, Reichard bowled games of 265, 257 and 278 for an 800 series becoming, at age 10, the youngest bowler in history to reach 800 for three games.
“That 800 gave me a lot of confidence, but I didn't really understand what I did the first few years,” he said. “Now I know what it means.”
Reichard's top series since was 780, and on Oct. 15, he bowled his first 300 game, which he said was a greater thrill.
“Because I hadn't done it yet,” he said. “The 800 was kind of like a shock, and I didn't understand it as much because I was 10.”
Reichard's parents, Todd and Jill Reichard, have been top bowlers in the Jackson area for many years. His older brother, Casey, and older sister, Kelsea, had success on the high school team, so he had plenty of role models growing up.
“My mom and dad have been a huge influence, especially my dad,” he said. “He's coaching the girls now, and I've watched probably 10 years now with my brother and sister on the teams, and now I'm in my second year.
“My mom just watches the high school matches, but she plays a bigger role in the tournaments that I bowl in on weekends.”
Reichard also participates in the Michigan Junior Masters Association and the West Michigan Junior Gold Tour. The experience he has gained in those tournaments has helped him learn different lane patterns and gain experience.
“There are lots of tough patterns that we bowl on,” he said. “Every shot is tough, and there are some really good players, especially in the MJA, and that is great competition.
“There are a lot of state bowlers there, bowlers of the year, state champions. It has helped ground me and help me to get better because there's always somebody better than you. I keep working every day just to get better.”
Last year as a freshman, Reichard averaged 231.2 over six games during the Division 4 Finals qualifying block to earn the top seed in match play. He showed great consistency in the qualifying with games of 223, 229, 245, 232, 242 and 216, but he lost in the second round of match play when he rolled back-to-back games below 200.
“My goal is to bring a state title home and try to get academic all-state,” he said. “Academics are first in my mind.”
Teammates helping teammates
Coach Ambs said the most gratifying part of this team is how they help each other on the lanes.
“I am most proud of these guys for their ability to work together,” she said. “When somebody sees something, he will come back and say something like, 'My ball did this,' or 'My ball did that.' They talk to each other about the lanes, and they do that quite a bit.”
Reichard leads the team with a 241 average, while Cecil is second at 232 and sophomore Conner Lackey – Reichard's cousin – is third at 220. Three juniors round out the team: Tyler Strawser (182), Keegan Campbell (180) and Hunter Storm (173).
“We always talk to each other,” Cecil said. “We're always giving each other advice.”
Lackey said they all know each other's games so well that it makes it easy to help a teammate when he is struggling.
“I think having a supportive team – with our bowling background – has helped a lot,” he said. “We know everybody's game so well that if somebody throws a bad shot, we know the adjustment that needs to be made.”
Perhaps the trickiest part of Ambs' job as coach could be working with Reichard while his father, Todd, is on hand coaching the girls. But they make it work quite smoothly.
“Todd and I have worked together for enough years that if I have a question about Korey – and Korey and I can't talk about it – I will ask Todd,” she said. “Or Korey will say, 'I'll go ask my dad,' or Conner will say, 'I'll go ask my uncle.'
“It is a little bit of a challenge with him being right there, but it's not a bad challenge. If they need or want him, then I will let them talk to him, or I will go stand with the girls and he can go and talk with them. However it has to happen. We do coach very well as a team, and that's the good thing about it.
“It's nice to have him there.”
Losing a home, finding a new one
It wasn't that long ago that Jackson was home to five bowling establishments. It is down to two, and one of the losses was Summit Lanes, a 50-lane house located just a mile or so from Vandercook Lake High School. It was the Jayhawks' home house, and when Summit closed in the summer of 2014, the team moved to Airport Lanes in Jackson.
“When it first closed, I was a little bit devastated because for the three of us, it was pretty much our second home,” Lackey said. “We'd had tournaments at Airport, but overall we didn't bowl a lot here. I feel like we've adjusted, and it's starting to become our second home.”
Cecil said, “It was tough at first and kind of a shock. It came out of nowhere. We picked each other up from that big blow, and here we are.”
The core of the team began bowling years ago in the Saturday morning youth leagues at Summit.
“We all grew up together,” Cecil said. “We were good friends growing up, and bowled on the same team in youth leagues, and now we're a team again."
Chip Mundy served as sports editor at the Brooklyn Exponent and Albion Recorder from 1980-86, and then as a reporter and later copy editor at the Jackson Citizen-Patriot from 1986-2011. He also co-authored Michigan Sports Trivia. E-mail him at email@example.com with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Vandercook Lake’s Zach Cecil watches one of his rolls. (Middle) The Vandercook Lake boys bowling team, with coach Libie Ambs (right). (Top photo courtesy of MLive/Jackson Citizen Patriot; middle photo by Chip Mundy.) (Below) WXYZ-TV reported on Korey Reichard's 800 series in 2012.