BRIGHTON – Perhaps no one described Brighton freshman Natalie Klein’s first high school season better than the coach of her rival school.
“She was very impressive,” Howell coach Gary Brown said. “I mean, she was a freshman and she throws the ball fantastic.”
Brown stopped just short of wishing luck to the KLAA. If Klein’s freshman season is any indication, a stroke of bad luck – or good luck for her opponents – might be all that can stop her going forward. That’s because in her first year, Klein was simply dominant.
The Bulldogs freshman averaged the eighth-best regular-season average (191 pins per game) in the KLAA, and while that’s an impressive feat, it paled in comparison to what she achieved in the postseason.
In a glimpse of what might be a regular occurrence these next few years, Klein outright won her regional, doing so by posting the second-best score of the six Division 1 regions. She then followed that up in the D1 state finals with a top-eight finish.
If the accolades of regional champion and state placer weren’t enough, Klein now adds another to her resume, as the Brighton freshman and state quarterfinalist is the All-County Girls Bowler of the Year for the 2014-15 season.
“I’ve been coaching (at Brighton) for three years. For the brief time I’ve been in the program, she has probably the most talent that I’ve seen come through the program,” Brighton coach Jim Lantis said. “I’ve seen a lot of youth bowlers, and I’d say Natalie has some of the most talent I’ve seen out of a lot of them. She’s just an outstanding young lady with a lot of desire and a lot of love for the game.”
That love and passion for the game was not something that suddenly developed when she got to high school. It extends back quite a few years, before winning a regional or states or even making Brighton’s varsity team were in the realm of possibility. The seeds of Klein becoming a freshman phenomenon were planted in the early stages of her childhood.
It was at 3 years old that Klein said she first remembers picking up a bowling ball.
“Since I can walk,” she said on the phone last week.
With her family being “a bowling family” — her parents, Lisa and Steven, and two sisters, Madalyn and Carly, who have already graduated from high school, all still play at least somewhat competitively — and her parents having decided to become owners of their own alley, it was clear Klein was destined for a life at the lanes, although she might not have realized it at the time.
“My whole family is pretty passionate about it, even my cousins. Everybody,” she said. “I think we love it because it’s just a singles sport and even if it is team, you can’t really blame anybody else. It’s all on you.”
Perhaps that line best explains why her true breakout happened later in the year.
Klein had an excellent regular season competing with and for the team, that much is undeniable based on her scores. But it was when she was competing on her own and vying for individual states that she truly appeared to be in her element.
Even Lantis, who of course had heard of Klein prior to her joining Brighton and was well-aware of her limitless potential when he began coaching her, saw something click in the postseason.
“I had been waiting all season for her to really break out with a high series and high games,” Lantis said, “and she ended up doing that in the regionals and states, which is the right time to do it.”
At regionals, Klein posted a six-game total of 1,331 pins — an average of 221 — at Royal Scot Golf and Bowl in Lansing. No one else was even within reach as she was atop the pack by an astounding 141 pins.
After it was over, she said her sister Madalyn was the motivation.
“My sister bowled high school her last year (2013),” she said, “and she qualified second in her region and came in fifth (at states) also. Seeing her bowl and being so successful made me want to be as successful as her.”
If a regional championship wasn’t enough, she certainly did her sister and her family proud a week later at states. In the qualifying round she had Division 1’s fourth-best score of 1,306 pins, essentially bowling the same as she did in regionals to make the tournament block at Sunnybrook Golf and Bowling in Sterling Heights.
She wasn’t finished, either.
Klein defeated Hudsonville senior Bailey Gulch in head-to-head match play to enter the quarterfinals before her promising season would finally come to an end against a fellow freshman, Caledonia’s Macailin Rodriguez, in a closely contested match that was decided by 25 pins (371-346).
It was hardly a reason to be disappointed, however, and Klein was anything but.
“I’m really happy with my freshman year,” she said. “I did not expect to walk in and win regionals like it was no big deal. It was different. In my first six frames, I was worried I wasn’t even going to make the cut. I tried my hardest and I just wanted to place. So, I’m very proud how much of a difference I made from my first game to last.”
She made the cut, won regionals, placed among the top eight in states, and, in one season, lived up to just about all of the expectations others had placed on her. Her performance left just one question: What can she possible do for an encore?
“I can only see her getting better,” Lantis said. “Just the potential that girl has is amazing.”
“She’ll definitely be a force to reckon with the next three years,” Brown added.
Contact Anthony Odoardi at firstname.lastname@example.org or (517) 204-9456.
■ NOTABLE: Smith stuck right with teammate Rachel Manetz, challenging her for top scorer honors throughout the season, as evidenced by her pin average of 180 — good for 17th in the KLAA just behind Manetz’s 183. Smith played an instrumental role in helping the Highlanders win its second division title in as many years and reach the D1 state finals.
■ HOWELL COACH GARY BROWN SAYS: “She has a big upside, throws a lot of big games and a powerful ball. She throws a lot of big games. She’s definitely, I’d say, the spark plug for our team. She gets everybody up and calms everybody down and she definitely fits most into the leader role.”
■ NOTABLE: Boggs had a solid regular season, placing 27th in the conference in average pins (170) and serving as the leader of Brighton’s squad. She took it to another level in the postseason, however, when she notched one of the best scores at regionals and made the D1 state meet.
■ BRIGHTON COACH JIM LANTIS SAYS: “Morgan had a pretty steady year. Definitely qualifying for states was the high point for her this year. She was definitely a key, key bowler on the team this year, no doubt. She held the girls together very well during competition and kept everybody motivated.”
■ NOTABLE: Klein burst onto the scene as a freshman by not only winning regionals, but posting the second-highest score among the six regions. She followed that up by reaching the Division 1 state quarterfinals. Klein averaged just under 191 pins in her rookie campaign, which was the best mark in the county, second-best among KLAA West schools and eighth in the league.
■ BRIGHTON COACH JIM LANTIS SAYS: “She bowled very well all season long. I had been waiting all season for her to really break out with a high series and high games, and she ended up doing that in the regionals and states, which is the right time to do it. Just the potential that that girl has is amazing.”
■ NOTABLE: Manetz’s average of 183 pins was the 14th-best mark in the Lakes Conference. She finished the season as the leading scorer on a deep Howell team that reached the Division 1 state finals by placing third in regionals and winning a second straight KLAA West championship. Manetz also bowled the highest game in the KLAA this season with a 277.
■ HOWELL COACH GARY BROWN SAYS: “Rachel meant a lot to the team. She was pretty much my anchor bowler all year. She was real consistent, throws a real good ball and is a good spare shooter. She had a couple big games the year. She shot a 277 and had a couple decent series, but she’s just real consistent.”
■ NOTABLE: Due to the MHSAA’s transfer rule, Fielding was forced to sit until after Jan. 19. However, her abbreviated 11-game season didn’t stop her from performing as one of the county’s and league’s best bowlers, averaging a 172 and ending her brief stint in the KLAA as its 24th-best bowler.
BRIGHTON COACH JIM LANTIS SAYS: “I have to hand it to her, she was at just about every practice and every meet up to the point where she could start to compete. She was there supporting the team, very anxious and very ready to bowl. Then she came in and was a key element to the team, winning numerous points for the team during matches.”
■ Lexi Cruse, Howell
■ Lily Ireton, Brighton
■ Rachel Kuczajda, Pinckney
■ Jordan Salmon, Howell
■ Michelle Thompson, Hartland
■HARTLAND — Julia Conway
■HOWELL — Ali Sanford.
■SUNDAY: Boys bowling
■TODAY: Girls bowling