By Jeff Bleiler
Special for Second Half
BATTLE CREEK – Not long after they claimed their Division 4 high school bowling singles championships, both Collin Baldwin and Mackenzie Johnson thought back to people who impacted them during their freshman years.
Baldwin proved “some kid” was wrong three years ago, while Johnson paid further homage to her father, who died shortly after her freshman season.
Baldwin, a Napoleon senior, and Johnson, a Vandercook Lake senior, won their MHSAA Finals titles Saturday at M-66 Bowl in Battle Creek, becoming the first Cascades Conference duo to win titles in the same season since Adam LaRoe of Napoleon and Malloree Ambs of Vandercook Lake claimed 2013 crowns.
In front of what sounded like the entire town of Napoleon – the crescendo of cheers getting louder with each successive strike – Baldwin stormed out to a 98-pin lead after the first game in the title match and needed nearly all of it as New Lothrop senior Tate Steinborn rallied but fell short in a 396-366 match.
About 15 minutes later, and eight lanes over, Johnson polished off her second straight Division 4 championship by rolling strikes on five of the first six frames of the second game to defeat Bronson junior Dakota Smith 364-333. Johnson became only the second girl in MHSAA bowling history to repeat as an individual champion, joining Jordan Richard of Tecumseh who won Division 2 titles in 2012 and 2013.
Moments after winning the school’s second Finals singles championship, an emotional Baldwin hugged dozens of teammates, family and fans who made the trek from Napoleon.
“I have a huge support section from my team, family, other teams,” Baldwin said. “I’ve made a lot of friends through this, and they’re all very nice and very supportive of me. I’m just thankful for bowling.”
He had perhaps the most thankless road to the championship, having to face 2017 Finals champion Brandon Hyska of Bronson in the quarterfinals and Vandercook Lake senior Korey Reichard in the semifinals. Baldwin edged Hyska 343-339 with a clutch mark in the 10th frame of the second game, then overcame a 26-pin deficit to Reichard after the first game to win 364-354.
“They’re both really great bowlers,” Baldwin said of Hyska and Reichard. “I’m happy to have bowled with them through high school. They got bad breaks, and I got some good ones. I was relaxed for the most part (going into the championship match), because I had just knocked out Brandon and Korey who had both bowled really good today. Going into the finals, I felt pretty confident in myself and just stuck to my game.”
Baldwin threw eight strikes during a clean 247 to Steinborn’s 149 in a battle of bowlers who employ the ever popular two-handed delivery style. Baldwin went cold in the second game with four opens through nine frames while Steinborn carried a four-bagger and made things interesting. But needing strings of strikes to make up the deficit, Steinborn came up short and Baldwin secured the championship.
“It feels great,” said Napoleon coach Randy Chesney, who also coached the two-handed LaRoe to his Finals championship six years ago. “Collin’s really worked hard, probably harder than any kid I’ve ever had, so he really deserved it. And it was probably the toughest bracket to get through today.”
And that “kid” from three years ago?
“Freshman year, some kid told me I couldn’t bowl two-handed,” said Baldwin, who plans to attend and bowl at Jackson College in the fall. “And I made my goal to be better than him, and I did that today.”
For Johnson, the repeat championship helped cement her among the greats in the storied history of Vandercook Lake bowling and provided proper punctuation to close out Todd Reichard’s 18 seasons as coach.
Johnson trailed after the first game of the championship 170-163. Despite two late open frames the second game, she finished off a 201 to Smith’s 163 to win. Never far from her thoughts was her father, Brad Johnson, who died of an inoperable brain tumor in 2016. He was 49.
“I always feel him in a bowling alley,” she said. “That was the person sixth-grade year, nine hours in a bowling alley a day it felt like. He’d be back there getting his steps in with his Fitbit. I’m always feeling him. If I get lucky on a shot, it’s thanks to Brad. I look up and, ‘Thanks, Brad. You were right.’”
There through every step of her high school years was her mother, Kris, a woman Mackenzie Johnson called “my rock.”
“Throughout this whole thing, my mom is my everything. She’s my rock. She’s my person,” she said. “That is the person I look up to. She’s motivated me to do this. She is my drive. She’s why I do my high school sports; that’s why I’m so competitive. She’s my everything.”
Also there through every step was Reichard, who closed out his high school coaching career guiding his sixth Finals singles champion. Reichard will focus on coaching the Concordia University women’s bowling program, and it seemed fitting that Johnson was the final high school bowler he coached.
“She’s like a daughter to me. Totally amazing,” Reichard said. “There’s nothing she can’t do with a bowling ball. She told me to just (put a bowling ball in her hands) and she can do anything with it. She’s a leader, kids look up to her. She can be tough on them, but she’s a great player. I don’t know where she ranks at Vandercook, but she’s got to be one of the best.”
He might not have seen the last of Johnson, though. She is considering Concordia if she decides to bowl at the next level.
“Todd’s everything I could ask for in a coach and more,” Johnson said. “I honestly don’t plan to bowl anywhere but Concordia. I just thank him for the four seasons he helped me through.”