Alyssa Gallion Dothan Wolves bowling

Alyssa Gallion is among the Dothan Wolves’ bowling team members who will be participating in the state tournament beginning Thursday in Pelham.

An influx of athletes from other sports highlight the roster of this year’s Dothan Wolves girls bowling team, the inaugural one for the new school.

They also helped the Wolves earn a historic first state tournament bid.

The eight members of the Wolves’ team earned that berth after winning a regional tournament match against Auburn and finishing in the top eight at the South Regional in Mobile last week.

They begin the two-day state competition Thursday at the Oak Mountain Lanes in Pelham.

“It is pretty big accomplishment being in the first year,” senior Mackenzie Stewart said of reaching state.

“I’m ecstatic to go to state,” first-year head coach Brianne Kent said. “It is very surreal to be able to make it that far in my first year as a bowling coach.”

Northview, which consolidated with Dothan this year, had bowling as a sport the last four years and the new school maintained it. However, only two members of last year’s Northview team returned — Jalia Fleming and Ellie Smith.

Kent asked several athletes of other sports to join the team. Some took her up on the offer.

“She (coach Kent) asked me and Alyssa (Gallion) to come out,” said junior Natalie Turner, a volleyball, softball and track athlete. “So we were like, ‘Ok, bowling is fun. We can do that.’” Then I got Rayleigh (Thagard) to come try out.”

Gallion was a volleyball teammate and Thagard a softball teammate.

Eventually, two other softball players — Stewart and Megan Henderson — joined as well.

As a result, six of the eight team members compete in another sport — and a seventh is a part of the cheerleading squad.

“I think it helps because we already have that strength which helps us throw the ball,” Stewart said. “Rayleigh is also a pitcher so she already has that (underhand) movement. It came naturally to her.”

Kent said having bowlers with experience in other sports provided an already developed characteristic, one that kicked in when the season’s first matches arrived.

“We have girls who play multiple sports, so they are competitive by nature,” Kent said. “They came in here with the mentality of ‘This is something fun and extra to do,’ but once we started competing, they realized the playoffs were something they really wanted to do and they worked to make it happen.”

Turner said the experience of other sports has already paid off in crucial moments for the Wolves.

“We are used to under pressure situations, so when it is a close game, we know how to control it and play our game,” Turner said.

Most of the new members admit they joined because they thought it would be “fun.” They soon realized it was more than fun.

“I just wanted to do it for fun and I thought I would have a good time doing it before softball started,” Thagard said. “It was a good opportunity to do something new. But it is very much more competitive than I thought it would be.

“You have to focus on where you are going to throw it and how you are going to spin it especially with the different balls there are at each lane. You have to put your feet different (for certain shots). There is a lot more to think about than you think it is.”

Gallion added, “I didn’t think bowling was that serious. I didn’t realize there is technique to everything. You have certain forms for certain throws with certain balls. It takes talent to hit all the pins and do it consistently. It is something you have to learn and practice.”

Most of the new members were casual bowlers who did it once in a while, though Stewart bowled more regularly as part of her volunteer work with Special Olympics.

“I had to learn a lot because in the past I was just bowling for fun. I really didn’t do it for competition. I did know some fundamentals, but not a lot of it,” Stewart said.

Kent said the athletes gradually picked up the ins and outs and the improvement showed with a late-season surge.

“They have really started to understand the game of bowling,” Kent said. “There is a lot of strategy to it and technique. It is not just come here and throw the ball. They have learned and picked up those things quickly.”

While they went undefeated most of the season, it was a close loss at Auburn in mid-December and a win over the same team in mid-January that was a turning point to ignite the Wolves.

“I talked to my friends who have bowled in the past and with other teams in passing and they said ‘Auburn is serious. You are not going to beat Auburn. It was a day trip and you will have fun, but don’t expect to beat Auburn,’” Gallion said.

“We go up there and it is like a completely different atmosphere. They have serious bowling lanes. Everyone looks professional with nice new jerseys and everything was super clean. We are like, ‘This is not Dothan.’ We go up there and we are bowling pretty well, ‘Hey, we are keeping up with them.’”

Auburn won the match, but only by 48 pins. Gallion said the Wolves left “with the realization that we are good.”

“Although it was a loss, it was a turning point for us. I think that is a time when we came together. We were cheering for each other and we had more fun than we realized we were going to have.”

In the January 13 rematch at Dothan Lanes, the Wolves beat Auburn, 993 to 915, to finish the regular season 9-1 in dual meets. That experience provided confidence for the regional tournament rematch.

“When we came back and beat Auburn that really showed me that we had some good people that could take us a long way,” Stewart said.

For the season, Thagard and Turner have led the team, though almost every member has had a strong performance or two. Thagard averaged a 145 for the traditional round of matches with Turner next at 130. Smith averaged 125, Stewart 124 and Fleming 122.

Now as they enter the state meet, the Wolves have confidence, though they know it will be a different atmosphere with the state’s 16 top teams in the building.

“I think we need to go in there confident and know that we can bowl and not be overwhelmed by how people there are (at the meet),” Thagard said. “I think last week (at regional) most of us were (overwhelmed) that first day and once we got into a little more, we bowled well.”

The Wolves had one of their best performances of the year in beating Auburn, 1,090 to 963, during the regional, highlighted by knocking down 472 pins in the three Baker Games.

Regardless of how they come out, they already know the season has been an “unexpected success.”

“Coming from expectations of literally nothing then being coached up (by coach Kent and other experts), we have turned out to be a pretty good team,” Gallion said. “That is exciting.”

Turner added, “We never really expected it because we just wanted to do this for fun. We came out and we were a lot better than we expected us to be. It has been a cool experience.”

With only two seniors on roster — Stewart and Gallion — most of the team could be back for next year.

Five of the team members are juniors — Fleming, Kiatta Bighem, Henderson, Thagard and Turner. Smith, a freshman, rounds out the roster.

David is sports writer for Dothan Eagle.

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