Wichita, Kan. – It’s no secret that Wichita has a rich collegiate sports history, most of which centers around the rich traditions of Wichita State baseball and basketball. But in the past 40 years, another more unfamiliar sport has made its way into the spotlight; one that has planted its roots deep in Wichita, and has seen unprecedented success from two of the city’s three universities, including the reigning national coach of the year, and the early favorite for national player of the year.
Bowling is growing at a feverish pace in Wichita, and across the country. Each year, more than 2,000 junior bowlers from across the nation compete for six spots on both the US Junior Team USA squad in the sports annual Junior Gold tournament; a tournament that didn’t even exist 15 years ago, and that grew by 500 bowlers in just the past year. Each year, the Wichita State bowling team bolsters its reputation as a national title contender, but just eight miles to the west, the Newman bowling team has been turning heads at each stop they make on the national collegiate bowling trail.
In just its seventh season of existence, the Jets have positioned themselves near the top of the collegiate bowling scene, and have two of the most important ingredients necessary to make a run at a national title. Last season, Newman head coach Billy Murphy was named the 2008-09 National Bowling Coach of the Year, while current Newman senior Derek Hartnell earned first team All-American honors.
Hartnell and Murphy both started bowling when they were four years old. Hartnell was raised in a bowling family as the son of two accomplished bowlers in Kenosha, Wisc. Murphy, meanwhile, spent most of his childhood in Hutchinson, Kan., inside Countryside Lanes, which his grandfather owned at the time. Murphy’s uncle, Paul Waliczek, started the bowling program at Wichita State. Naturally, Murphy ended up bowling for the Shockers, then traveled the country for six years competing with the nation’s best amateurs. In 1999, he started his coaching career at Wichita’s Heights High School, where he led the Falcons to a City League championship in 2004; the same year he began coaching at Newman.
Two years later, Hartnell, a Wisconsin state singles champion, and Murphy each found themselves in Indianapolis, Ind., at the Junior Gold tournament. Hartnell was one of 1,700 junior bowlers competing for a spot on Junior Team USA that year, and Murphy was scouting the field for bowling talent to bring to Newman.
“I saw Derek bowl and was very impressed,” Murphy said. “His parents were in the crowd, so I started visiting with them and got some background information on him. To me, it seemed like Derek would be a great fit for Newman University. He had raw talent, and was the kind of person we look for in our program. It seemed like a natural fit.”
Murphy knew it would be no easy task to get a bowler the caliber of Hartnell to Newman, and found himself competing against the likes of Arizona State, Saginaw Valley State, and of course Wichita State, but for Hartnell, the choice was easy.
“I wanted to bowl in college for a coach that I knew could make me better,” Hartnell said. “I visited some of the other schools, and spent some time at Wichita State, but in the end I felt like Newman was the place for me. Coach Murphy has been successful in his bowling career and knows the game as well as anybody, and the school offered me a good scholarship package. That’s when I knew it was the place for me.”
Hartnell and Murphy have proved to be a winning combination in their fourth season together, and have played key roles in each other’s success. Hartnell’s bowling skills earned All-American honors, which in turn earned Murphy the attention he needed to be named National Coach of the Year. Hartnell also played a key role in Newman’s head-to-head win over Wichita State in the only head-to-head meeting between the two powerhouse programs.
“Anytime you have an outstanding player, it starts to make things easier on you as a coach,” Murphy said. “It helps your success in tournaments, it helps recruiting, it helps the entire program. I had one coach at a recent tournament tell me that in his opinion, Derek ‘has filthy stuff,’ that’s just how good he is. He’s a competitor and a leader in every sense of the word.”
As proof of what kind of “filthy stuff” Hartnell has, he opened his senior season by bowling a perfect game, netting a 300 score at the Midwest Collegiate Championships on Oct. 3 in Milwaukee, Wis. It wasn’t his first perfect game. It wasn’t even his second flawless outing. Rather, it was Hartnell’s 22nd career perfect game; a mark unmatched by any Newman bowler in the program’s seven-year history.
The bowling programs at Newman and Wichita State have a friendly, yet competitive relationship.
“Our kids and their kids get along for the most part,” Murphy said. “They bowl in the same tournaments, the same leagues, and they are friends, but we still like to beat them every time we get the chance.”
“It’s kind of a secret aggression we have with them,” Hartnell added. “It’s competitive, but friendly at the same time. We see them and bowl against them all the time, so we aren’t intimidated by them the way other teams might be.”
Together, the two programs have been the cornerstone of what many consider to be the most prestigious league competitions in the country.
“People don’t realize it, but a lot of the ‘celebrities’ in town play in bowling leagues,” Murphy said. “Bob Lutz (Wichita Eagle Sports Columnist), Merril Teller (KWCH Meteorologist), and Woody Austin (PGA Golfer) all play in bowling leagues in Wichita, and there are many others.”
“Bowling league competition won’t get any better than it is in Wichita,” Hartnell said. “I’ve been a lot of places in my life, but I’ve never seen bowling leagues as strong as they are in Wichita.”
The success of Wichita bowling is due, in large part, to the success of the bowling programs at Newman and at Wichita State.
“Any way you look at it, a lot of it is due to Wichita State’s success,” Murphy said. “In the bowling world, they are like the Duke or the North Carolina of the basketball world, but we’re not far behind by any means. We both have athletes from across the country on our rosters, and those people stay here after college and start bowling, so the league competition just keeps getting better and better each year.”
Murphy believes bowling will continue to grow in the future, both in Wichita and around the country.
“Bowling is growing like crazy,” he said. ” In the past year, 14 universities started bowling teams. High school bowling didn’t even exist 15 years ago. Now high school bowling is sponsored in over 30 states. It’s a competitive sport, and it’s heading in the right direction. It definitely has a bright future.”