Kevin Ross with his favorite soccer ball bowling ball during a practice round at Maple City Bowl in Hornell.
Story and video by JOHN ANDERSON
When Kevin Ross filled in as a sub on a bowling team for his brother Bill at Belmont’s Community Lanes in 1976, he realized the sport was just as competitive as the soccer, golf, basketball and baseball he played.
So he asked Jim McNinch and John Long for some pointers, and eventually became part of a team.
This weekend, Ross has a chance to place and make some money when he competes in the PBA 50 (Professional Bowlers Association) at Crystal Lanes in Corning.
Ross, who has bowled 14 career 300 games including one in the Elks League at Maple City Bowl in Hornell on Jan. 26, had to qualify for the PBA event. A group of bowlers who have a minimum 200 average for 36 games over a season were invited to a qualifying tournament in Hornell.
Ross retired from the Allegany County Sheriff’s Department in 2017 after 36 years.
Ross averaged 225 in a league that ended on Tuesday and won the tournament at Maple City Bowl. Taking second was Hornell’s Ron Kennell who also earned a spot. They will be joined by Wellsville’s Dave Bentley (who worked as a deputy with Ross) and Hornell’s Brent Fitzwater who were able to purchase remaining spots in the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Ross has bowled 14 career 300 games, but now he is bowling on a different lane pattern with more oil in the middle and they have to use sanctioned bowling balls. From the conditions to the weight on the bowling balls, everything is difficult on the professional bowlers tour which is why you don’t see 300 games all the time and a lot of tough spares.
The last time Ross earned a spot in a professional tournament was 2018. He even asked for an autograph.
“That was a culture shock,” Ross said. “You see them on TV. I asked Norm Duke for his autograph, it was fun. But once you get up there on the lane and bowl with them, you see they put their pants on the same way you do. They are real guys.”
With that experience, Ross wants to get past the qualifying round.
“I just want to see how I fare against some of the better bowlers in the East Region. There will be some big names there and it will be fun. If you are competitive, you want to bowl with the best,” Ross said. “My goal is to qualify to bowl on Sunday. Do I have expectations to win a championship? No. I want to qualify and say I did it.”
One of his Hornell teammates and coaches, Steve Crandall, thinks Ross will do more than “qualify” and hopes to see him “in the money” as one of the top finishers.
“Kevin has a really good chance, he’s gotten his feet wet a few times. He has a good opportunity to place and win cash,” Crandall said. “The thing is, he has got to be able to adjust. Some of these guys have done it for a living and done it for 40 years. Walter Ray Williams Jr. has done it for years and he’s made a lot of money as a PBA professional.”
Ross bowls in Hornell with Crandall, who owns the X Zone Pro Shop in Maple City Bowl with his wife, Sharon.
During practice for the event, Crandall had Josh Kennell, Ron’s son, throwing first-ball “misses” to set up spares for practice. Ross and Bentley were then following up and trying to make the tough spares. Crandall said the tournaments are won and lost by bowlers who pick up marks (a spare) and don’t have open frames (when you don’t knock down all the pins on the second roll for a spare).
But there is another factor. Crandall said Ross is in great physical shape and can withstand having to bowl eight games a day within five hours as he tries to move through the tournament into the finals.
“Kevin works hard at his game. Even at his age (Ross is 64), he is very athletic,” Crandall said. “You have to be fit to bowl eight games in one day in the PBA.
“Kevin and I bowled USBC nationals in 2018 in Syracuse. There were 300 of the best bowlers in the world, it was a $500 entry fee and it was a bucket list thing for me to do. We bowled 15 games across three days on different oil patterns.”
And oil patterns will be the biggest adjustment for the local bowlers.
“On a house lane, the oil is on the side and the middle, almost a Christmas tree shape,” Crandall explained. “There is more oil in the middle and its dryer on the outside, called a 10-to-1 house. A PBA pattern is much flatter and a 3-to-1, so there is less forgiveness.”
Still confused? Crandall understands.
“On the PBA lane, the ball bites the lane, gets to the dry part, the cover bites into the lane and slows it down and the weight block inside the ball takes over,” Crandall said. “It’s like having a bigger engine, but with a bowling ball.
“The ball has to be approved by the USBC and stamped. And there are weight limits. It’s like NASCAR, you can’t have more than three ounces on one side over the other. There are a lot of specifications. The PBA also requires bowlers to wear certain attire sponsored by the PBA. Shirts, dress slacks, belt, shirt tucked in,” Crandall added.
The tournament is March 25 to March 27. It’s a far cry from when Ross was a sub in Belmont.
“My brother Billy helped me quite a lot when I started,” Kevin said, also noting Bill is the only brother who has not bowled a 300 game.
Bill, who bowled the first 700 series at Community Lanes in Belmont points out, “I may not have a 300, but I’m the only brother who shot a hole-in-one in golf.”
The third brother, Dana Ross, has 10 sanctioned 300 games. The brothers bowled for years on a star-filled team with Mark Hunter, Steve Biancuzzo and as their sub, Bob Drosendahl.
The last two 300 games Kevin Ross bowled were almost exactly a year apart in Hornell, but his first one was in Belmont. While he does not remember the year, he will never forget what happened.
“I was on alley 7 and 8 and close to a 300 game when the pin setter broke,” Ross said. “Jim McNinch went down and ran the pin setter by hand so I could finish my 300 game without a long delay to fix it.”
Ross said he started bowling in Hornell when the Thursday night league was put on hold because of Covid and he picked up subbing in Hornell. Ross now bowls three times a week in Hornell in leagues.
“There are differences. These are synthetic lanes in Hornell, Belmont has wood lanes. Both are old lanes,” Ross said. “Synthetic seems to hold the oil longer and the shot stays consistent. “I love Belmont, that’s where a majority of my bowling has taken place and a majority of my 300 games took place.”
This weekend, household bowling names like Norm Duke, Parker Bohn III and Walter Ray Williams Jr. could be in Corning and all three are in the top 10 for the year on the PBA 50 tour. Duke made close to $50,000 in prize money alone last year.
Tom Hess and Pete Weber are currently ranked #1 and #2 and Lockport’s Brad Angelo is #4.
Hornell has hosted PBA regionals in the past. Brian LeClair won two PBA regionals in Hornell, a $6,000 in 2013 at the East Region PBA Invitational and in 2014, a $3,500 top prize PBA regional invitation Also winning PBA events in Hornell were Patrick Allen in 2015 and Ryan Shafer in 2016.
Ron Kennell is in the same spot Kevin Ross was years ago, he is happy to win and be part of the tournament.
“I’m nervous as heck. It is a bucket list … a big-time bucket list to bowl against guys I see on TV, no doubt,” Kennell said. “I bowled against Walter Ray before and he beat me badly.”
Kennell said having Ross there will help and he said they support each other in bowling. But he said outside of Steve and Sharon Crandall, his greatest support and coach is his wife, Barb.
How big is bowling?
The day after their wedding 34 years ago, Barb Kennell bowled a 600 series and Ron Kennell bowled a 700 series. The now-defunct Hornell Evening Tribune had a big headline, “Match made in heaven.”
And that’s not all. Ron had a 180 average before he got married and now, with a bowling family, he has a 217 average.
“All she (Barb) keeps telling me is to roll the ball!” Ron said.
Kennell has been bowling for over 50 years, since he was six. He had one 300 game on Nov. 11, 2011 in Hornell at Maple City Bowl.
“I’m going to try to keep him calm,” he said. “I just hope Kevin and I are bowling close to each other.”