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ESPN Madison's Jesse Nelson draws on his experiences at the Wisconsin High School Bowling State Championships in telling the stories of today's competition

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Tuesday, March 1, 2022 7:00 am
ESPN Madison's Jesse Nelson draws on his experiences at the Wisconsin High School Bowling State Championships in telling the stories of today's competition
ESPN Wisconsin's Jesse Nelson, Hall of Famer Liz Johnson, and then-BowlstreamTV owner Craig Elliott during the webcast of the 2019 Wisconsin High School Bowling State Championships. Photo by BCAW.

As a content manager, host and producer for ESPN Madison, Jesse Nelson spends his days working with big-timers like long-time Green Bay Packers beat writer Jason Wilde (a colleague of mine at the Wisconsin State Journal) and Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer Mark Tauscher.

The Packers, Bucks, Brewers, Badgers and other major sports are the main topics of the Wilde and Tausch show and other ESPN Wisconsin shows on radio and the Wisconsin On Demand app. (ESPN Madison is part of ESPN Wisconsin, which is part of Good Karma Brands.)

I’m a dedicated listener to Wilde and Tausch, and other ESPN Wisconsin shows like Homer & Tony, and Jen, Gabe and Chewy, but I wouldn’t be writing this story if there wasn’t a tie to bowling. 

Nelson is the tie, as he has been the voice of the Wisconsin High School Bowling State Championships for several years, which are operated by the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin.

That includes crafting the tournament’s official announcements and, most importantly, announcing the championship rounds of both singles and team on the Sunday of State Championships weekend, which this year will be Friday-Sunday at Super Bowl in Appleton and Sabre Lanes in Menasha.

BowlStreamTV handles the webcasts of the championship rounds and Nelson has worked with BowlStreamTV owners Craig Elliott and Emil Williams, who bought the company from Elliott between the 2020 and 2021 events.

Nelson bowled for Muskego High School, which made it to the State Championships his junior and senior years in 2009 and 2010, giving him experience that he draws on as he describes the triumphs and heartbreaks that unfold at the tournament every year.

Nelson is not a top level bowler who is going to break down the likes of rev rates and ball drillings like a Randy Pedersen does on the PBA Tour telecasts, but Nelson knows more than enough to work with Elliott and Williams in crafting solid telecasts.

I interviewed Nelson for about 30 minutes one evening last week as he drove home from the ESPN Madison studios to the Sun Prairie residence he shares with his wife Beka.

Nelson, whose sense of humor is a staple of Wilde and Tausch, provided a few hearty laughs as he talked about his bowling and radio careers and how they come together at Wisconsin’s signature event for youth bowlers.

The bold-faced type is my questions, with Nelson’s answers following, with minimal editing.

So tell me about your bowling career and history — how you got into it, career highlights, that sort of thing.

My mom and dad were both bowlers, and that's really the inspiration for how I first got into bowling. When I was in middle school, I joined my first youth league at Alpine Lanes in Muskego. And I remained in a league for about six years through my senior year of high school, and developed some really good friendships, including a neighbor right across the street. My buddy, Danny, one of my best friends growing up, was on the team and my buddy Jeff. All of us kind of got into bowling because of our parents and because of our relationships with one another. As we continued to grow, and as we continued to find avenues in high school to compete, bowling was a place for us. And Alpine Lanes made it feel like home. And we had great coaching and great opportunities to succeed.

You talk on Wilde and Tausch about some of your some of your bowling exploits and that Mukwonago was your big rival.

Mukwonago and Oak Creek, those were definitely the two rivals. Mukwonago simply because of some of the personalities that were on the team, especially around 2009 2010, and the proximity to Muskego. And then Oak Creek threw back-to-back 300 games against us at their home center of Classic Lanes Oak Creek. That was a first I believe for high school bowling. I want to say it was 2009. I can't say that with certainty but somewhere in that realm. Whenever it was, those back-to-back 300s really hurt us a lot. That was the motivation for a while: to try and get back at them.

And you got to compete in the High School State Tournament for Muskego?

Yes, both as a junior and a senior on the varsity team at Muskego. In 2009, we went to Ashwaubenon and we did not qualify for the finals. I think we were 15th. I'm not exactly sure, but we came up a little bit short. And then in 2010, we did qualify for the finals, and we advanced to the Saturday night stepladder and Neenah got us, which has inspired a rivalry for myself personally with the great community of Neenah even though they've done literally nothing to antagonize me other than that in my life. But Neenah got us in the stepladder. We didn't get enough practice time, I'll say that.

What kind of average did you carry as a high school player?

Around 220.

Whoa. So you were a quality player then. You tend to talk down on yourself when I hear you on the show.

Peak Jesse was 220. I was usually our leadoff bowler so I wasn't the big striker on the team. That was definitely Danny and Jeff — they were the big strikers. Danny was a lefty and Jeff was a big cranker. I was a good leadoff bowler. I was always stable emotionally to get us off to a great start. I was always good for a mark and had one of the highest fill percentages in the state both my years on varsity. I was definitely a good leadoff bowler. Except at the State Tournament. At State Tournament I was absolutely bad. It was the oil pattern — I’ll swear that to the day I die. The oil pattern did not suit me well compared to all the big crankers, which we had a lot of.

So you're more of a straighter player then.

Absolutely. At Alpine Lanes and at the majority of houses I would always start seventh board between first and second arrow. That was my spot and then we'd see what would happen from there.

Do you have any 300 games or ever have any runs at a 300?

I got close. With Danny and Jeff being the big bowlers, I never expected that I would have the opportunity to get the first 300 of our group and I was in that position. Danny and Jeff had not yet gotten (a perfect game) and in our Saturday morning league, I entered the 10th frame with nine in a row. The house got silent and I stepped up and the first shot of the 10th frame was a crossover strike. The second shot in the 10th frame was square on the nose of the head pin, and somehow barreled them all over for a strike for 11 in a row. The last ball, I threw it dead in the pocket exactly where I wanted it and left a ringing 10-pin for a 299.

Oh, the irony there.

I got a trophy for the 299, which really felt like a slap in the face. And then like a week later, Danny and Jeff both ended up throwing 300 games.

At least you did better on the 12th shot than Jason. He tells the story about his 291, which I still can't believe — that just blows my mind. He is the only person I know of with a 291.

He was a good bowler back in the day at some point. I don't know when I and I don't know if he's still got it, but rumor has it he was a good bowler.

After you graduated from Muskego, did you bowl in college? From what you talk about on Wilde and Tausch, you seem to have drifted away from bowling.

Yeah, so when I went to college at Bradley, we didn't have a club bowling team at all. I joined a fraternity, Phi Kappa Phi, and one of my buddies Matt Maser was also on a high school bowling team in Illinois. And so once a month through our first two years of college together we would go bowling and have a little competition against one another. So that was kind of how we both maintained being involved in bowling. But then, yeah, I kind of grew away from it a little bit. It was disappointing. I really wished that looking back I would have had an opportunity to compete in college bowling, because I really think that would have gone somewhere fun. Anytime I go to the State Tournament, I strongly encourage the kids to do it because I think it's great for scholarship opportunities.

And you haven't been found your way back to adult leagues?

I've filled in as a sub now and then but I have not been a regular league bowler. I'm a little disappointed about that. I wish that a few of my friends that lived in the Madison area would do so. Some of my friends back in the Milwaukee area still compete in a regular bowling league. And so I've joined them now and then. And I've joined the league at Stubby’s (Bowl) in Waterloo (as a sub) the couple of times that I've been invited, but I haven't been a regular league bowling competitor, I'm still looking into it in the near future.

Did you get a broadcast journalism degree or something like that at Bradley?

Yes, in sports communication from Bradley.

And how did you end up at ESPN Wisconsin?

So actually the story starts in a marching band. ESPN Milwaukee was broadcasting a Muskego-Kenosha Bradford high school football game when I was a senior in 2010. Muskego football was awful. Kenosha Bradford had Melvin Gordon, I'm pretty sure we were down like 42-nothing at halftime. It was bad. But I was nominated as a junior broadcaster of the week feature for ESPN Milwaukee. A bunch of my teachers had known that I wanted to get into broadcasting and they nominated me. So I was supposed to go on at halftime for an interview. And I said, ‘I'm sorry, I can't go on at halftime. I have to conduct the marching band as a drum major.’ And so they said, ‘Well just come up after the third quarter,’ and I said, ‘OK, great.’ So I got done conducting the marching band, ran up the bleachers and into the press box. Bill Johnson was the broadcaster for the game. I met him about 10 seconds before we went on the air. He handed me a headset and said, ‘Here you go. We're going to talk on the air.’ And I ended up staying on for the entirety of the third quarter. I had a fun conversation with Bill about Bradley University and Muskego and all kinds of things. And then after we were done, he said, ‘If you're ever looking for an internship, feel free to reach out, let me know.’ And a couple of years later, once I was a sophomore and eligible for the internship, I did so and ended up as an intern at ESPN Milwaukee in the summer of 2012. And then, two years later, after I graduated from Bradley, I reached out again and was hired for a part-time content position. And from there things escalated into a full-time role in Beaver Dam, and then eventually a full-time role in Madison, which has changed a few times since all the way up to content manager now.

I’m a rabid listener and I love the relationship you have with Wilde and Tausch. You guys are great together.

Thank you. It’s so fun. Tausch is who he is on the air — he’s no different off the air. Jason is really the same. He's very genuine. He cares about everybody. They're fantastic people to work with. And we appreciate you and all the fans of the show.

My readers are likely to know you from high school bowling, but obviously that's not your full-time job. What's a typical day? And what do you do in your job as a content producer?

So the alarm is set for 5:05 (a.m.). Every morning, we wake up, we hit the shower, do our daily routine. And then we get into show preparation. Jason, Tausch and I have a group chat that we exchange ideas in every night. And every morning, Tausch watching “Get Up” (on ESPN) usually has a few extra ideas to add, and then we will formulate a show sheet, which we follow, I don't know, 12% of the time. It’s some ideas that are exchanged and some topics that we want to discuss and questions we want to ask of fans. And so that's my job to just kind of formulate all the ideas and put them in a sensible row for Jason and Tausch to go ahead and discuss and then obviously adding in like trivia and a few other specialty segments on a day-to-day basis. It takes about an hour and a half every morning to do that. I head into the station and we do our show from 9 (a.m.) to noon. And then in the afternoon obviously there’s post show responsibilities: posting some audio clips to social media and sharing with the team and uploading the podcast to Wisconsin On Demand. And then as the content manager I also have some other responsibilities with our other ESPN Madison shows making sure that they're in line and working with our social media team, our marketing team, about other opportunities that exist into the future.

What kind of ambitions and goals do you have? Is ESPN Madison all you want? Or are you looking to get to Bristol (ESPN headquarters) or what?

Well, I would say this: Wisconsin is always where I want to be. Beka and I want to remain in the Madison area, we want to remain in Wisconsin close to our families, as we prepare to build our own. Wisconsin is where I want to be. Play-by-play opportunities are always something I've been interested in. I'd love to have an opportunity to get a call up at some point with WTMJ or Bally Sports Wisconsin or whatever the case may be. But play-by-play is definitely something I'm interested in long term. ESPN Wisconsin is somewhere that I'm really happy being and it's a reason that I accepted the role of content manager this last summer. Management wasn't something I originally ever wanted to do. But as I talked with some of our leadership with our Good Karma Brands, team, Madison's where I want to be, Wisconsin's where I want to be, and the ability to grow the ESPN Madison brand and our station and the great team that we have assembled already, I think is a tremendous opportunity. This is where we want to set up and we don't have any ambition to be anywhere else at this point.

And you have done play-by-play of local high school sports like football with Dennis Semrau (my former colleague at The Capital Times), right?

So for the last few years, I've been the voice of High School Sports for ESPN Madison. This year, I took kind of a backseat to Alex Strouf, who's done a tremendous job fresh out of college from UW-Stevens Point. He's an absolute talent. He's going to be great someday. So he's taking over as our lead high school play-by-play voice. I've still done a few games with Dennis as the high school play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN Madison and ESPN Wisconsin. We've done some state tournament games. We'll do some more state basketball tournament games coming up.

How did you get into the high school bowling state tournament?

Bob Maki was a coach of the Muskego High School bowling team. He helped out at Alpine Lanes as an assistant there. And Bob lived in my neighborhood in Muskego growing up. After I graduated from college and started at ESPN Milwaukee, Bob reached out and asked if I'd be interested in contributing to the High School Bowling State Tournament. I said, ‘Absolutely!’ When I was in high school and listening to those opening announcements, I thought I could do that someday, that would be fun. And so when Bob reached out, it was like, ‘Of course, that's something I'd love to do.’ It’s been just tremendous. It's so fun. It's one of my favorite weekends of the entire year.

So you do more than the Sunday shows.

Yes. I record the opening announcements where I record every kid's name and every coach's name, and do all the announcements about what's legal and not legal. All those typical hall monitor things that I love and enjoy.

You've seen some pretty cool stuff over the years for a former high school bowler, and that just has to be a fun time, doesn't it?

Of course. You know there's a grind to that weekend. I remember how hard it was for us just to get through the 15 games of qualifying on Saturday and then to get through that stepladder Saturday night and then to be in those finals Sunday. And in the singles tournament, you're bowling your three games of qualifying Friday, and then an additional round on Saturday night in between the team tournament for a lot of people. It's incredible to see the stamina and the energy and the focus that a lot of those high school bowlers bring on Sunday. And there’s the different storylines you get every year: the seniors that are trying to go out on top, and the freshmen and sophomores who are trying to be the disruptors and make their name against some of the big dogs in the state. And just the different aspects of that final Sunday every year is so fun. It's a pleasure to be a part of it. It doesn't get old and this is now my eighth year as part of the broadcasts and every year is different, every year is fun. There's just tremendous electricity in the bowling centers that host the state tournament. It's incredible.

And then you get back on the air (on Wilde and Tausch) after the weekend and you get picked on for it being bowling?

Yeah, that's what it is ... just like Matt Hamilton, the Olympic gold medal curler who just got back from Beijing. People make fun of the curling and his stamina and what he looks like and everything. So bowling, curling, shuffleboard, whatever you want to say it's all in the same realm.

Do you ever have any flashbacks to your own State Tournament experience when you're sitting there announcing?

All the time. Especially because my senior year I had such a bad State Tournament, it was brutal. So anytime there's someone who's struggling, I immediately empathize. I had already had a bad round, and my final shot as a singles high school bowler, the 10th frame of the third game, I stepped over the line and fouled, These are the best of the best bowlers in the state, and you get like one per year where someone fouls on championship Sunday. It's just thinking about where you want to throw the shot, how fast you want to throw it, and all that's at stake with every single pin that gets knocked down. And you forget about the simple things like letting go of the ball on time. And it gets to you. From broadcasting and being part of orchestras and bands and being used to performing and public speaking, I'm not someone who gets nervous. But for whatever reason at that High School State Tournament, your nerves can get to you — your anxiousness can take over, and the simplest things suddenly become so difficult. And I totally empathize with everyone that goes through that.

And I was teammates with Dustin Hansen, who's no longer with us: he passed away a few years ago. But he was an individual state champion on the boys side, from Muskego. And his composure and his just tenacity, you had to respect it. You see people that step up in the clutch situations and the shots that they're able to throw with such accuracy and such poise. It's incredible.

You've worked with both Craig and Emil. I know them both well. Tell me a little bit about the two of them and how they're the same and how they're different and what they're like to work with.

Oh, they're absolutely incredible to work with. Both of them. They're the ones that make the show go. Craig, when I first started, so did he. It was both of our first years doing the High School State Tournaments. We barely knew each other when we first did our first broadcast in Sun Prairie in 2015. And what we were able to develop over the years was a tremendous friendship and relationship as broadcasters for the State Tournament. And we both knew we could rely on one another either technically or personality wise for the commentary and the back and forth with one another. And then as Craig turned over BowlStreamtv.com to Emil, immediately Emil and I got along perfectly last year. It's like we picked up and never missed a step. It was it was fantastic to work with both of them. And it's so cool what they have developed and done for high school bowling in Wisconsin and for bowling in general, across the United States. I mean, the product that they create, what they're able to provide for fans of the sport is incredible.