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The 11th Frame: Biggest State Tournament in country can’t escape bowling’s broken nature

JEFF RICHGELS | Posted: Friday, March 21, 2014 10:00 am

My scoresheet from 2013 State Tournament singles showing zero handicap, although the final prize list gave me 8 pins.

While it’s far from perfect, the Wisconsin State Bowling Association Championships — aka the State Tournament — has long been the biggest in the country with more than 2,000 teams (it’s down slightly to a tad under 2,000 this year) and does many things very well.

It’s been using USBC Blue and Kegel “challenge” patterns — not as tough as Sport patterns but more challenging than house shots — for several years.

And WSBA officials have mostly been fighting the good fight against sandbaggers — go to the search box on 11thFrame.com and type in Phil LaPorte (the recently retired head of WSBA) and Don Hildebrand (his successor) and enjoy my coverage of some of the cases.

But our State Tournament can’t escape the broken nature of bowling — at least when it comes to handicap and sandbagging, both intentional and unintentional.

The WSBA in 2014 has been making mistakes of its own in this area, but Hildebrand is dealing with the situations as best he can and — more importantly — said in interviews this week that he is open to major changes in order to combat the problem.

Sandbagging has been around for decades, perhaps for as long as there’s been money to win in bowling.

What most people think of as sandbagging is intentionally bowling poorly to hold a league average down in order to have an unfair advantage in tournaments.

What I call “unintentional” sandbagging often isn’t unintentional, but I haven’t come up with a better term since it doesn’t involve intentionally bowling poorly by throwing bad shots. It involves bowling league on tough conditions to set an average lower than would be achieved on house conditions, which are the standard.

Back in the old days, people bowled in what were commonly called “brickyards” or “boneyards” that were tougher than most centers. Some just bowled at their local center and unintentionally gained an advantage; others sought out such centers with the intention of gaining an advantage.

Tough houses still exist today, either from tough lane patterns or poor lane surfaces.

But a more recent phenomenon is to use Sport conditions without certifying a league as Sport, meaning the average shows up in the USBC database without the Sport icon and therefore may escape adjustment by the Sport scale.

Hildebrand said he tried to bring up the issue at the USBC Convention in Reno last year and “was basically shot down” by then-USBC CEO Stu Upson and President Andrew Cain.

In defense of USBC, it is a difficult issue, as there are varying levels of difficulty in Sport conditions from U.S. Open flat to Cheetah soft, and various levels of Challenge conditions that aren’t as soft as typical house shots. And that doesn’t even get into the differences in lane surfaces, kickbacks, flat gutters, etc.

Any serious bowler knows there really is no true fairness in comparing averages.

“And it’s absolutely killing us,” Hildebrand said, noting that current USBC rules forbid him from rerating averages in situations where he has evidence that Sport conditions are being used without Sport certification, not to mention all the other situations where conditions are tougher than house but softer than Sport.

Hildebrand said he’d like to see some sort of “challenge” icon go up next to averages in USBC’s database that indicate an average was established on Sport or other tougher conditions than a house shot  even though the league wasn’t Sport certified.

He emphasized that Challenge leagues “do serve a purpose. There are many bowlers that bowl in them to improve their skills and are not there to establish a low average. I commend proprietors that are willing to work with their bowlers to provide what they are looking for. Again, the problem only arises when these bowlers go to tournaments.”

Our Ten Pin Alley Bullseye Masters League has long bowled on Sport conditions but hasn’t been Sport certified the past three seasons after staff cuts at Ten Pin meant there was no one available to tape the lane before each league session as required by USBC rules.

However, I have publicized the situation in my blog and vowed to report anyone from the league who doesn’t voluntarily rerate themselves using a Sport adjustment scale.

A couple of years ago, I rerated myself to scratch after State when there was a miscommunication and I got a couple of pins of handicap per event instead of being at scratch.

I’ve been 213 and 222 the last two seasons when we weren’t Sport certified, was 211 and 206 the prior two seasons when we were, and am at just 201 (third in the league) this season as we bowl on Kegel versions of the very difficult patterns from last year’s PBA Summer Swing.

Last year, I was at scratch going into State — see my singles scoresheet that is the picture with this blog — but just discovered in the past week that I somehow received 8 pins handicap in singles and 24 in all-events, moving my meager scores up enough that I made an extra $5. (I was so far down the prize list I never bothered to look at the standings, which can be accessed at the WSBA website.)

Hildebrand apologized for the error and said the 2013 results would be fixed on WSBA’s website, while I will donate $5 to charity to make up for the money I should not have received.

Although by the rules I could receive handicap this year, I am going in at scratch (225).

Hopefully, there will be no issues with that, although WSBA has had problems with re-rates: according to several bowlers I’ve talked to, officials at the tournament sites have been wrongly discouraging and sometimes turning down honest bowlers’ efforts — some from our league — to re-rate themselves.

Hildebrand said that should never happen and has been explained to tournament officials.

While some may not have gotten that message clearly, Hildebrand said that going forward, “I guarantee every single person who works the tournament will know it. That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

One is Scott Erickson, who came in with 210 from the Bullseye Masters last season but was 238, 228 and 226 in house shot leagues the prior three seasons, and also owns an excellent tournament record in events like the USBC Open Championships.

“The (WSBA) guy said if I didn't have a blue (Sport) sanction card, they couldn't re-rate me at all,” Erickson told me, adding that he wanted to bowl scratch but, “219 was as high as I could talk them into re-rating me. So that was what I used.”

After reading this story, Bryan Bannach posted this on Facebook: "Just a funny side note, I was literally the person behind Scott Erickson as he checked in, while Scott was dealing with his check-in official, I went to the official next to him, asked to be re-rated to 225 and was given the sheet, filled it out, and beat Scott out of the check-in room. No questions asked. While Scott had to pull teeth to get his average up to 219. It was clearly a miscommunication by the tournament staff. One person thought one thing while the other thought another. But I was given no grief and the process went smoothly for me. Hopefully everyone can get on the same page after Don talks with them."

Then there’s Eric Shelby, a powerful lefty who won the Over 40/Under 40 Doubles at Super Bowl in Appleton in 2012 and shot 822 in singles at State last year, missing the title by one pin.

Shelby also averaged 240, 233 and 236 in house shots leagues before last season, when he was 197 in the Bullseye Masters.

“I went in and said I needed to be re-rated that the only league I bowled in was a non-certified Sport league,” said Shelby, who like Erickson bowled last weekend. “Then the (WSBA) guy told me that was happening a lot. And since there was no asterisk by my average that is what they were gonna use.”

The asterisk indicates that the average hasn’t been verified as correctly reported.

Even with what he said was a bad team event, Shelby shot 2,010 scratch all-events featuring 747 in doubles, giving him 2,235 handicap thanks to a ridiculous 225 pins handicap.

“It is a screwed up system.” Shelby said. “I tried to do the right thing.”

Hildebrand, who was in Reno for the USBC Open Championships over the weekend and had a family situation occupying much of his time this week, was investigating what happened and would be contacting bowlers.

“I don’t understand what happened with Shelby,” he said.

Shelby on Thursday night said he’d be happy to talk with Hildebrand and would not have any problem being re-rated to scratch.

Update March 26: Shelby and Hildebrand finally connected and Shelby has been re-rated to scratch.

A third bowler from our league, Jim Ring, actually ended up in Division 2 handicap with the 191 average he has in the Bullseye Masters this season. According to what was explained to me — Ring was absent Thursday night — he bowled his first session Friday night at 211, which was his average from two seasons ago as he didn’t get 21 games in last season in any league. But when he returned for his second sessions on Saturday, he was at 191 and the officials insisted he stay at 191.

Jim has bowled very little in recent years and is far from the bowler he was when he won a PBA Regional title in 1986, but 191 is comical. I’d say 211 might be about right, and I’d expect that’s where he is corrected to after Hildebrand contacts him.

(One thing to note is that re-rates after the fact don’t change any handicap brackets that were paid out on site.)

Hildebrand said he had learned that half a dozen guys did re-rate their averages to scratch last weekend.

“If you ask to bowl scratch, you’re supposed to be allowed to bowl scratch,” he said.

(He also learned that five bowlers who bowled team Friday night apparently paid for scratch events on Saturday before minors and if that was confirmed they would be disqualified.)

He said staff at the tournament sites typically handle about 30 to 40 changes per shift, which includes average adjustments and bowler replacements.

“It’s a zoo” and that can lead to problems, he said.

Then there’s the case of Troy Schaefer, who fired 853 in team event and 2,207 all-events at State the first weekend of March, as I wrote up here.

Schaefer averaged 193 in a Sport league last season and was adjusted to 210 so he ended up with 2,327 handicap all-events to take the lead.

Russ Smith later started a Facebook thread that quickly became heated. Smith and Schaefer ultimately had a face-to-face heated discussion. And Smith later apologized on the Facebook thread, saying he was wrong.

Schaefer was 194 in a Sport league two seasons ago and 217 in a house shot league the season before that. He was 233 and 226 in house shot leagues the prior two seasons.

I bowled with Schaefer the weekend before he bowled State in the Fusion Realtors Open in Iowa and he struggled mightily. He definitely looked like a 210 average bowler.

Schaefer said at State last year he asked to be re-rated to scratch — as he was at the Willow Creek Classic — and the State official refused to change it, so he didn’t try this year.

He also said the Fusion was typical of how he’s been bowling this season — poorly, with just one cut made in 16 scratch tournaments he has bowled — and that was as Ken Kempf’s doubles partner.

I am not bothered by Schaefer at 210, though it is a bit of a stretch to think a 210 average bowler could shoot 2,200. But that was really made on one surreal 3-game set in team.

Schaefer said he felt like he should be between 210 and 225, which I’d agree with. But he made the topic moot when he called Hildebrand and asked to be put at scratch and was.

“I didn't think it was right to keep a 210,” he told me. “If I bowled on a house shot and averaged 210 I would be upset and frustrated. I know I'm definitely not scratch, but to re-rate myself I couldn't pick a random number so I just said, ‘Put me at scratch.’ It's in the best interest of the tournament. I don't ever want to be labeled as someone who didn't do the right thing. This did not come down to public opinion, but rather what I thought was right and just. I could've easily kept my 210 rerate as it's within the rules, but it wouldn't be appropriate. I'm not sure what number I'd give myself, but most likely a 220 on a house shot when I'm bowling good.”

Hildebrand said Schaefer was very sincere and he stayed neutral and didn’t offer him any advice.

“Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know,” Hildebrand said.

I’d agree, and also give great credit to Schaefer for doing what he thinks is right.

The thing is that it doesn’t solve the actual problem of sandbagging, which to be crystal clear is not what Schaefer was doing in any form.

Rule 319 is supposed to cover true sandbaggers who hold a low average to make money in tournaments, but Hildebrand notes correctly that it’s almost impossible for tournament officials to tell whether a bowler is being honest in reporting under 319.

“When people don’t report I can’t catch them,” he said. ““When we have to rely on the integrity of the bowler, there’s a certain percentage that use that to their advantage. We need a central database” of tournament scores.

That is something many have been calling for for many years, but how and who pays for it have been stumbling blocks.

One intriguing option used by the Michigan State Tournament is a State Tournament average.

Update April 2: Here is my story on Michigan using averages based on State Tournament scores.

I think the concept is great because it would enable the WSBA to know the data is accurate, and it’s established on State Tournament conditions.

I could see a bowler’s average for the last five years at State be their average if it’s higher than whatever average they come in with.

The main issue would be new State Tournament bowlers who don’t have a record at State to use.

Hildebrand said he plans to meet with his Michigan counterpart, Barney Eagan, and “we are going to look at that.”

The Madison Bowling Association uses only averages on USBC Red (house) and White conditions, nothing tougher. Our City is contested on White conditions. Something similar would be great for State, but verifying conditions across the state makes it almost impossible to implement.

Another option I believe would help the State Tournament is a declared scratch division, which means that bowlers could elect to bowl only in scratch events. Currently, scratch is an option available only if you enter handicap.

Since lineage and expense fees are paid only on handicap, neither would go be reduced — they’d just be paid through scratch, which currently is just a prize money fee.

I don’t believe entries would go down, as I’ve heard some assert.

I think they actually might increase because it would remove the obstacle of scratch bowlers who don’t want to enter handicap events they know they have nearly zero chance of winning and because it removes the obstacle of negative feelings some non-scratch bowlers have bowling against “hot shots” – the state’s best.

A declared scratch option also would allow WSBA to focus on the true sandbaggers whose goal isn’t to bowl for titles, but instead is to win as much money as they can however they can.

There is no bigger evil in bowling.


Update March 26: Troy Schaefer wrote the following statement that I am posting with just some minor editing for typos:

After all of the conversations, posts, and opinions about my performance at the Wisconsin State Bowling Tournament this year, I really felt it necessary to respond and give my perspective as the person who experienced it.   My goal is to respond with as many facts as possible, and hopefully help everyone gain perspective on not only who I am, but also give you another perspective to consider on this hot topic issue.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it.”- Charles Swindol. I have his poem on attitude in my classroom which I look at every day. During this whole process I’ve had many people state their opinions on social media, which is everyone’s Constitutional Right. I guess the part that was disappointing are the people who shake my hand when they see me at tournaments, say hi, or people who have actually spent time with me off the lanes that have such negative things to say. Those who know me best know I am a man who has always tried to do the right thing, and work very diligently each day to be the best person I can be. One of my guiding principles in life is Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development in which I try to aspire to be at a level 6. It is incredibly difficult, especially when untrue comments are being made, but sometimes in life its best to take the high road. Well, I’ve decided to go off that road for today, to present facts to all the bowlers in Wisconsin.

First off, some facts to consider. One week after my Wisconsin State Bowling scores were posted some of the comments posted and made were, “It’s about the money,” “#integrity,” “#dignity,” “No 210 average bowler can ever bowl 2200,” among many other comments about my character. What I thought was funny is not one of those bowlers had anything to say about Wade Staude or Lynn Staude. Some facts to help everyone: Lynn Staude entered the Wisconsin State Bowling Tournament with a 210 average, that is correct. His scratch score was 2201, with his handicap of 120 pins put him 6 pins behind me in handicap all events. Lynn Staude will benefit from my personal rerate and he is currently now the handicaps all events leader. Some other fun facts: His doubles partner Wade Staude booked a 196 average last year, even though in another league he was averaging 223 of course stopping at 18 games. Last year Wade and Lynn were the handicap doubles champions. They posted an impressive 1525 scratch and with their handicap shot 1606 to be crowned the Wisconsin State Bowling Handicap Division champions. Wade Staude also shot 2187 scratch in all events and posted a 2321 with handicap putting him in 6th place overall. This year Lynn Staude will be the beneficiary of my decision to rerate myself. What is concerning is how many people with the 200+ comments on my scores had nothing to say of that.

“You cannot let praise or criticisms get to you. In life people will give you praise that you do not deserve and people will give you criticism that you do not deserve. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”- John Wooden. Through this process I’ve taken a tremendous positive outlook on this experience. I appreciate so many people’s assessment of my abilities and what an excellent bowler I must be. Since my assessment of my bowling abilities differs greatly from my critics I thought I would give some data on my bowling game. I don’t spend much time living in the past as its just wasted energy, but to hear so many people having such a high regard for my bowling game actually was nice to see.   I wanted to take a moment once again to give some facts so all bowlers can at least make an assessment on my game as a scratch bowler, since that seemed to be the proper assessment of my abilities.

  1. Every scratch singles tournament I entered this season I missed the cut. I wonder how many scratch bowlers have had this experience?
  2. The only scratch tournament cut I made this year was the Milwaukee Doubles Tournament where my partner Ken Kempf literally carried me the whole day.
  3. I bowl with Kenny in the one and only league I bowl in which is a Sport League in SuperBowl, Ken is currently averaging 20 pins higher than me. He actually was 21+ pins higher than me for most of the season, but a successful last couple of weeks has allowed me to improve my average.
  4. I’ve bowled twice at Shoreview Lanes this year with what would be considered all scratch bowlers on a “house” shot. Shoreview is notorious in Oshkosh for having high scores come out of there. It’s also the place where my average was 237 in 07’ and 233 in ’10. In my two weeks of bowling there I have averaged a whopping 213. I also manufactured the worst series each week on that team of scratch bowlers.
  5. I bowled in the Fusion Tournament in Iowa twice this year. The last event I bowled with Jeff Richgels and in that tournament with 177 scratch bowlers I finished behind 126 other scratch bowlers. I believe I was one of only 53 bowlers in the whole tournament to finish minus on what most bowlers at the tournament said was an easier shot.
  6. My last non-Sport league average was in 2010-2011 where I averaged 217, and once again, I had a really great last 6 weeks to move my average from 212 to 217.
  7. My averages are easily accessible for anyone to see, as well as the number of leagues I bowl in.
  8. My current Nationals average for 8 years of bowling in it is 201
  9. Also a technical point, my keeping a 210 average is within the rules of the game. By keeping a 210 average I would be breaking absolutely no rules.
  10. I also had a 210 average last year at the Wisconsin State Tournament and no one said a thing.

I would like to add a final quote that sums up my beliefs. “Be more concerned with character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”- John Wooden.

I would like to thank Rich Voakes (Rich Awesome), Erik Giadella, Matt Mead, Kyle Blaese, Ken Kempf, and Jason Wendt. These guys had the class and integrity to have a face to face conversation with me and share their views on the whole situation. I really want to thank Jeff Richgels for taking the time to gather the facts and listening to all sides before writing his article. I would also like to thank the several people who messaged me, called, or texted me in support of me. I also would like to thank the bowlers who supported me through this process as well as the bowlers who decided to remain neutral and make no comments at all. I’m very blessed to have the support of so many. With that being said, so many bowlers told me to keep my 210 average and I have no reason to change it.

To all the people who made quick and swift judgments about me and my character you are entitled to your opinions, that is the beautiful thing about this country. You are allowed to say what you feel with no consequences even if the things you say are libelous. I welcome a face to face conversation with any of those bowlers who are quick to judge my character. I personally choose not to judge others as I’m very busy living my life and trying to be the very best person I can be. With this group of people I’ve been told I must re-rate myself because according to their opinion I’m a scratch bowler. So I just wanted to take a moment to respond to some of the untrue statements made about myself:

  1. “It’s all about the money.” Anyone who knows me knows I do not bowl for money. I’ve entered the Wisconsin State Tournament almost $2,000 in the hole this bowling season. Twice this year I left bowling tournaments with bracket money coming and I completely forgot to check, because I was distraught about my bowling performance. By re-rating myself, I’m giving up a good chunk of money.
  2. “If you used different equipment he would be a scratch bowler.” This statement in itself is based on opinion only, not facts. I shot an 853 with Brunswick equipment; it must be pretty good in my hands. I’ve also won over 20 scratch tournaments since being on Brunswick Staff.

I’m about loyalty. I’ve been with one woman since I’ve been 18 years old. I’ve taught in the same elementary school for 15 years, and I’ve been the head baseball coach for the same high school for 9 years. I’m about loyalty. Brunswick invested in me when it wasn’t fashionable, no companies wanted to invest in me.   I’ve exclusively used Brunswick for 12 years; I’ve been on staff for 9! I’m very proud to be a Brunswick Staffer, and I try to promote their equipment to the best of my ability.

  1. Then of course comments about my character, dignity, and taking advantage of the system. This is the one I did take the most offense to. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a very avid reader, as a coach and teacher I always try to be a role model for others. Sometimes I fail, that is true, because I’m human, but my life goal is the constant pursuit of doing what is right. I know climbing the mountain of success is not a destination, but a journey whose summit will never be reached. I could give several examples of my character and the things I have done for others, but there is no point. Those who know me best know what type of individual I truly am.

So the final question is how did I come up with the decision to re-rate myself?

The biggest thing I feel I did wrong in all of this was not to try and re-rate myself this year. Last year I tried at the state tournament and was told, ‘It says 210 you will need to keep that average.’ I said to re-rate me to scratch it’s just easier, but once again I was told no. This was a humiliating experience, and I figured with the way I’ve been bowling this year it really wouldn’t matter. Plus I’ve been receiving handicap at the state tournament for the last 3 years. I had 210 last year, and bowled so poorly it didn’t matter anyways. Last year I bowled at the Willow Creek Tournament where I re-rated myself to scratch.

The truth is I didn’t even know I was leading the handicap all events. On Wednesday, March 5, 2014 Rich Awesome sent me a text that said, “You are leading all events on handicap Hoss! 2327!”

My response, “I’m not proud of that.” After I received the text I knew immediately I needed to do something about this. I in no way wanted to win an event at that state tournament where I felt it was unjust. I wanted to gather all the information I needed so I could correctly re-rate myself. Then all of the Facebook posts started so then of course I just stopped because I did not want any distractions before I left to bowl Nationals in Reno. I had an opportunity to meet with all of my teammates to get their perspective on the whole deal and the consensus was to keep the 210 average.  

When I returned from Reno, NV I started having a lot of dialogue with Jeff Richgels who after many extensive messages back and forth felt I had nothing to apologize for. In fact, he was ok with me keeping my 210 average as he felt I had good evidence to support as to why my keeping the average was acceptable. Then I took emotion out of it, and decided to go with logic and reasoning. I made the decision to call Don Hildenbrand, Association Manager of the Wisconsin State USBC Bowling Association, to re-rate myself. He asked if I was sure I wanted to do this as he saw no issue with my 210 average. That is where I said, “To protect the integrity of the tournament, I think it’s best to re-rate me. I don’t think I’m a scratch bowler anymore, but I do believe that is what is in the best interest of the tournament.   I also understand that this will move Lynn Staude into the lead, which I don’t agree with. I’m not sure what number I’d give myself so just put me as a scratch bowler.”

Finally, I would like to say in my closing remarks. I’m putting this bowling season behind me and moving on to baseball season. My high school Oshkosh North has the potential to have a great baseball season. That is where my focus will now turn. Those who took the time to read all of this, I thank you. To all of the bowlers in Wisconsin, I really wish we could learn to support one another and not be so quick to judge. My suggestion is if you have an issue with a fellow bowler, don’t post it for the entire world to see, do something unconventional in 2014 and have a face-to-face conversation with them. This way you can handle any conflicts like adults, and not have the protection of the computer when you have to look into the eyes of the person you are making judgments on. Remember this as well, we all have skeletons in our closet of some sort, and a lot of us could easily be exploited for some of our poor life choices. Save the judgment for a higher power and live your life to the best of our ability. The fact is, this world is tough for all of us, and it’s a little bit nicer when we support others. I also want to say I enjoy all the bowlers who post their scores, equipment used, location of tournament, and any honor scores you achieve. I enjoy reading about the success of all Wisconsin bowlers. I also know that it is an expectation of staff players to post their successes on multimedia avenues like Facebook and Twitter. In closing I would like to say this, things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.