By Bob Balgemann

Harlem Middle School likely is a household name in the Joliet area, home of the annual Illinois Elementary School Association (IESA) state bowling tournaments for boys and girls teams.

Since those competitions began in 2013, the young Lady Huskies have won four championships while finishing second twice. That includes an opening string of three consecutive titles, over 2013, 2014 and 2015.

They secured their fourth championship in 2022, after a two-year absence of that event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The young Huskies competed in seven of the eight  tournaments, having captured one championship, finishing second three times and third one time.

In the following recap of how Harlem Middle School teams fared over the brief life of the tournament, there will be many familiar names. They were on those teams, then moved up to Harlem High School where they were the among those who continued the tradition of Huskie success in the NIC-10, at preseason invitationals and in the postseason.



IESA state competition actually started in 2011, when it was for individuals only.

There were two entries for Loves Park Harlem during the initial girls tournament, in a field of 73, both eighth graders.

Brianna Zimmerman fared the best, finishing seventh with a 1,459 pinfall, or 145.9 average over 10 games. Meredith McNally was 12th, at 1,434 pins or a 143.4 average per game.

There was one more year for individuals, in 2012, with 106 participants, three from Loves Park Harlem. Seventh-grader Mylee McCracken was 14th, with 1,627 pins, followed by eighth-graders Sammi Laube in 30th, totaling 1,457 pins, and Sammi Schmidt in 33rd, at 1,427 pins.

For the boys, in 2011, eighth-grader Joey Heathcott was 15th, amassing 1,592 pins, or an average of 159.2 per outing, with eighth-grader Steven Hewett close behind, in 18th place, at 1,563. In all, there were 85 competitors in this initial tournament.

The following year all of Loves Park Harlem’s representatives were in seventh grade. They were Collin Day, 27th place, with 1,747 pins; Dawson Jones, 38th place, 1,681 pins; and Jordan Bosselman, 72nd place, bowling four games and totaling 573 pins. In 2012, the field contained 144 entries.


Team tournament


The state tournament for boys and girls teams began in 2013 when Harlem Middle School’s girls, listed in IESA records as Loves Park Harlem, began their run of three-straight championships. And the Lady Huskies ran away with that first one, totaling 6,608 pins to 6,224 for Homer Glen Homer, one of several schools from the Joliet area to challenge Harlem for places in the Top 5 most every year. Another of those chief competitors, from nearby Minooka, was third. NIC-10 member Freeport came in fifth. 

That initial Harlem team was led by seventh-grader Stephanie Richards who finished seventh among 125 individuals, with a 10-game series of 1,704 pins. Next up were eighth-grader Destiney Schaefer, eighth place, 1,697 pins; McCracken, now in eighth grade, 13th place, 1,664 series; and Gracillyne Cabello, 22nd place, 1,543.


2014 team

Richards was back, as an eighth-grader, and she sparked Harlem’s two-peat with a 1,837 pinfall that put her third among 121 individuals. Team-wise, the Lady Huskies had a much closer time of it this year, piling up 6,635 pins to 6,588 for runner-up Minooka, a difference of just 47 pins.

The championship actually was decided in the final two games. Minooka had taken a 136-pin lead going into the ninth game, 5,328 to 5,192. Harlem got 60 of those pins back with a 680-620 edge in that outing.

Then the Lady Huskies came all the way back in the 10th game with a resounding 763 to 640 advantage that secured the title.

Harlem had all four of its bowlers in the Top 20. Beyond Richards, there was eight-grader Treasure Childs in 10th, with her pinfall of 1,650; seventy-grader Kayla Verstraete in 16th, totaling 1,592; and seventh-grader Becca Hagerman, 20th with 1,556.


2015 team

Harlem’s three-peat as the state championship team was another one-sided affair. The Lady Huskies totaled a personal-best state finals total of 6,792 pins to 6,424 for Minooka, once again occupying second place. Homer Glen Homer took third.

This was an all senior team led by Hagerman, fourth among 145 individuals with her 10-game 1,881 series.

The rest of the lineup consisted of Verstraete with 1,709 pins, good for sixth place individually; and Addison Gerl, 10th with 1,636 pins. Angel Grinnall bowled six games and totaled 964 pins, good for 64th place; Amanda Wallace had a four-game series of 602, which put her 65th.


2016 team

Shorewood Troy, another of those Joliet-area schools, ended Harlem’s championship run as the Lady Huskies wound up fifth.

Its all new lineup had eighth-grader Lianna Summers at the top with her 1,636 series, which put her in 12th place in a new, all time high field of 162 competitors. She was followed by eighth-grader Laura Bartelt in 15th place, totaling 1,591 pins; and eighth-grader Amanda Bohn, 30th, with 1,478 pins.

Seventh-grader Joana Mae Araojo bowled seven games, finishing with a 1,076 series that put her in 68th place. And another seventh-grader, Madison Woodman, contributed three games, with 341 pins, and took 144th.  


2017 team

Harlem was second this year – 104 pins behind champion Minooka – which totaled 6,794 pins to take the title.

This was an all eighth-grade team for the second time with Araojo taking third in the field of 166 bowlers, compiling 1,788 pins. One of the newcomers, Olivia Watton, tied for fourth among individuals with her 1,733 series.

Woodman was in the starting lineup this time around and rolled a 1,613 series, which was good for 17th place. And another new addition, Jocelyn Eggert, totaled 1,566 pins that landed her in 20th.

McCayla Robbins traveled with the team but did not bowl.


2018 team

Another runner-up finish was achieved by Harlem (6,335), this time to another Joliet neighbor, first-time champion Homer Glen Homer (6,484).

This new lineup for the Lady Huskies featured a third-place individual place winner in first-time starter Paige Carpenter, an eighth-grader, who recorded an 1,838 series. Eighth-grader Carolyn Richards rolled 1,659, taking 10th place; seventh-grader Stephanie Windsor shot 1,549 and took 18th. Seventh-grader Hailee Kerr came in 70th with her seven-game series of 921; eighth-grader Naomi Kernica bowled three games, totaling 368 pins that gave her 128th place.

Eighth-grader Kamryn Brummett traveled with the team but did not bowl.


2019 team

This state tournament marked  the first appearance of Machesney Elementary School in that competition. The team took 22nd place, consisting of fifth-graders Madilynn Curry and Stella Schulte, and sixth-graders Payton Flipowicz and Samantha Grinnall.

Harlem’s varsity finished fifth  behind Homer Glen Homer’s two-peat.

Eighth-grader Hailee Kerr fared the best this weekend for the Lady Huskies, shooting 1,660 and taking 22nd place among 159 participants. There were six in Harlem’s lineup this year including eighth-grader Stephanie Windsor, 28th place with a 1,637 series; seventh-grader Hannah Herdklotz, 36th place with a 1,588; and eighth-grader Kelsey Triplett, an eight-game 1,192 that was good for 64th place.

Eighth-grader Savanna Conness rolled two games with a 279 series that put her in 145th place. Seventh-grader Alexis Nicholson traveled with the team but did not bowl.    


2020-21, no tournament because of COVID-19 pandemic

2022 team

This was the year Harlem made a triumphant return to being the tournament champion, winning by its largest margin ever – 511 pins – of the four titles. Shorewood Troy took second with Homer Glen Homer in third.


It also marked the first time the Lady Huskies placed all four of their participants in the Top 10 among individuals. Eighth-grader Ashlin Teves was the individual tournament champion, first-ever  for Harlem, with 2,126 pins, a 212.6 average. She also set a tournament record for best four-game series, a 920, built on single games of 194, 255, 255 and 236. That’s an average of 230 per game. Teammate Allison Roberts, also an eighth-grader, was second with 2,017 pins and a high game of 241.

The rest of the starters were seventh-grader Addison Brien, 1,806 pins,, in sixth place and eighth-grader Alexis Born, a 1,720 series, in ninth.

Machesney Elementary was fifth among the 12 finalists and the only elementary school to place at the tournament. Members of the team were fifth graders Sara Wilson (1,506) and Siren Anderson (1,012); and sixth-graders Hailey Semenchuk (1,607) and Natalie Abruzzo (1,192).

Seventh-grader Kylee Martins and eighth-grader Rylee Fish traveled with the team but did not bowl.


Boys Team 2013 

Harlem’s boys finished second in the inaugural tournament with an all eighth-grade lineup that featured a fourth-place finish, individually, by Jake Nimtz, who shot 2,017, in a field of 144 bowlers. He would continue on to Harlem High School where, as a sophomore in 2014, he was the state tournament champion, shooting two 300 games during the Saturday morning finals, while setting a new tournament record with a 12-game 3,011 series. The Huskies finished second that year. He went on to McKendree University in downstate Lebanon, where he consistently was ranked as one of the top college bowlers in the nation.

Collin Day was eighth individually for that team, with a 1,973 series; Dawson Jones was 19th, shooting 1,753; and Nick Howard was 35th, carrying a 1,630 series. Justen Beck recorded a 1,603, with Kyler Gerl turning in a 1,555.


2014 team 

Harlem took third this year, behind champion Roscoe, which feeds Hononegah, and second-place Freeport, both NIC-10 opponents. 

Its top bowler was seventh-grader Zach Zimmerman, who shot s 1,911 series that was good for 12 place in a field of 148 entries. Howard was 26th, with a 1,730; Gerl, 33rd, at 1,648; and seventh-grader Noah Mandujano, 35th, shooting a 1,643.


2015 team 

The Huskies rolled a 10-game 7,624 series, highest to this point in the tournament’s brief history,  while winning their first championship. They finished  well ahead of the runner-up, Roscoe, with its 7,172 pinfall.

Mandujano was making his second trip to state and had top games of 245 and 244 on his way to a second-place finish, individually, with a 2,088 series. Seventh-grader Josh Roth was 13th, at 1,851, with eighth-grader James White close behind in 14th with his 1,828. Next was seventh-grader Ethan Pash in 63rd place, with a seven-game 1,296 series; eighth-grader Cody Lawrence wound up 86th, totaling 561 pins over three games.

There were 172 participants in this year’s tournament.


2017 team

After not participating in the 2016 postseason, Harlem took sixth in 2017 as Roscoe took home the championship hardware.

Eighth-grader Alex Cleveland finished 20th in the field of 193 entries, rolling a 1,817 series. Eighth-grader Logan Franklin carded a 1,724 that put him in 34th place; eighth-grader P.J. Mellies had a nine-game 1,598, for 52nd; seventh-grader Brennan Pash recorded a 1,574, also for nine games, that left him in 60th place. Eighth-grader Dayton Dascher bowled the remaining two games, totaling 277 pins, for 185th place. 


2018 team

Bowlers from Machensney Elementary School appeared on the scene for the first time this year, individually representing their school. They were fifth-grader Dake Titus (60th place); fifth-grader Brayland Carpenter (82nd); fifth-grader Hayden Halfacre (109th); fifth-grader Trevor Olson (143rd); and sixth-grader Ethan Hagerman (151st).

At the middle school level, Harlem came in second behind champion Minooka.

Pash, in his final year at Harlem Middle, rolled a 1,918 series to take sixth place among 156 individuals. He was followed by seventh-grader Zander Carpenter in 33rd place, recording a 1,700; seventh-grader Braden Schuld in 59th place, at 1,550 over nine games; and seventh-grader Jeremy Martinez in 69th, with an eight-game 1,429.

Eighth-grader Hayden Cutler bowled one of the remaining games, a 163, which put him in 149th place, while seventh-grader Braydon Smith took care of the other two, totaling 343 pins and finishing 136th.


2019 team

Harlem was the runner-up for the second straight year, this time trailing Rockford Eisenhower by just 68 pins. The Huskies made it closer at the end, outpointing Eisenhower by 751 to 709 in the 10th and final game, but it wasn’t enough to bring them all the way back.

Martinez returned as an eighth-grader and made a dramatic improvement on his 2018 finish by totaling 1,971 pins, for eighth place. Schuld, also a veteran of the postseason, wound up 10th in the field of 160 bowlers with his 1,961 series. Carpenter carded a 1,619, in nine games, for 53rd place; Braydon Smith shot 1,554, also for nine games, for 59th. The two remaining games were bowled by Ben Smith, who totaled 282 pins for 145th place.

This year Machesney Elementary and Loves Park Windsor were represented at state, by individuals. That group included sixth-grader Dake Titus, (tied for 27th place); sixth-grader Devin Titus (41st place); sixth-grader Brayland Carpenter (56th); sixth-grader Trevor Olson (72nd); Loves Park Windsor fifth-grader Odin Dejong (95th); sixth-grader Hayden Halfacre (96th); and Colton Kilbreath (146th).


2022 team   

The Huskies came in seventh this year, led by eighth-grader Masen Evans who came in third among 161 individually with a 1,975 pins. There was a surprise finisher in Machesney Elementary sixth-grader Ben Dahle who, while representing his school as an individual, wound up ninth overall with a 1,835 series. Another Machesney Elementary sixth-grader, Aiden Higgenboham, came in 87th with a four-game total of 580 pins.

For Harlem Middle, Evans was followed by eighth-grader Aiden Sisler in 30th place, recording a 1,661 series; seventh-grader Braydon Adkins in 63rd, with a 1,287; and seventh-grader Nick Papini Jr. in 64th, shooting 1,263.


The coaching

A common denominator among all those teams was the head coach, Machesney Park resident Kelly Nimtz. She had been there since the beginning and is quick to say it’s a collective effort with the team being what it’s all about.

“I’ve been lucky every year to have a supporting group of coaches,” she stressed. “I couldn’t do it on my own; couldn’t take four teams to state. I’ve been super lucky to have those people help me since the beginning. Both men and women.”

Many of those coaches are parents of the bowlers and so that group changes every year or two, when their sons and daughters move up to the varsity teams at Harlem High School.

She continued: “It’s because the parents and kids all buy into the fact that we are all one big, bowling family. They all buy into the program and will do what they can to make it succeed. It’s all about team; they understand it. When the team succeeds, everyone succeeds.”

Coach Nimtz remembered starting the program at the elementary school level, first with sixth graders and then adding fifth graders.

That has evolved into teams and individuals competing at the state level. And that has been a strength that carried all involved through two years of the coronavirus pandemic, when there was no state competition.

The year before COVID-19, she remembered taking 33 kids to the state sectional tournament and 30 of them advancing to state.

“Then COVID hit,” she said. “That really pulled the rug out from under us.”

But now that momentum of two-plus years ago is being restored. “There’s another huge group of kids coming up, who get it, whose parents get it,” she said.

The success at state this year of the Machesney Elementary School girls team, fifth place among the 24 finalists, was “amazing,” she said. “Youngest team there.” And Harlem’s Middle School girls team “tore it up,” she said of handily winning its fourth championship by a margin of 511 pins.

And on the boys’ side, sixth-grader Ben Dahle went to state as an individual, representing Machesney Elementary, and finished ninth in the finals, averaging 183  pins per game.

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