Splits, spares and strikes: Stephens caps off career year with Marquette County’s highest series ever

For Justin Stephens, Tuesday night was just the chocolate sprinkles that went around the cherry that was the banana split of a league season just completed.

If ice cream sales in the area soar after making that statement, send me the 10 percent royalty check in care of The Mining Journal, please.

But first, let me explain.

It all begins with Stephens carrying an unprecedented average in the 240s throughout the year in the Friday 800 Mixed League at Superior Lanes in Marquette. Despite reaching the coveted three-game total of 800 just once all season, an online check of his average showed he finished at 243, which translates into a normal night of 729.

While that was a marathon feat of excellence over 72 games, he then sprinted into local lanes history last week in his other league, the Tuesday Miller Genuine Draft Major at Country Lanes in Ishpeming.

I thought it would be impossible to say this, but the 35-year-old Negaunee resident bowled a Marquette County-record 862 series despite leaving two splits, the spares that are difficult and sometimes impossible to pick up.

How is that possible? By throwing a strike on every one of his 32 other attempts, a 94 percent success rate in games of 300, 264 and 298.

Here’s how good of a run he made at the ultimate score of 900 – Stephens started all three games with at least nine of the 12 strikes needed for a perfect 300 game, including all 12 in Game 1 and 11 in Game 3.

To look at it another way, here’s the order of his 34 shots – start with 21 strikes in a row, leave a difficult 3-7 split that he was unable to convert, throw another 11 strikes in a row and finally leave a nearly impossible 4-6 split on the final ball of the night.

He didn’t have to shoot for a spare on the second split since the game was over with that throw, though it did stop him from getting his second 300 of the night.

“I made three mistakes all night,” he said about the two splits and a crossover “Brooklyn” strike in the middle of the second game.

He gives lots of credit to his new 15-pound Morich Aggressive Motion reactive resin ball, one he was throwing for just the second time.

“I bought it through a wholesaler downstate,” Stephens said. “It was cheaper because it was a closeout. For awhile now, I’ve been mostly buying balls that have been discontinued since you get a better price on them.

“The week before, I threw it for two games and I had 276 and 266 with it, and now 300, 264 and 298.”

The key is the hooking characteristic of the ball, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

“It doesn’t break a lot at the back end,” he said. “I’ve found the last couple of years that the balls that cut harder at the back end don’t carry the corner pins as well for me.”

That’s in part because of Stephens’ throwing style, which puts a ton of hook and revolutions on the ball no matter what the ball is supposed to do.

Despite his opening game being his 24th sanctioned 300, he was excited about it.

“It’s been awhile since I had a 300 here (in Ishpeming), so I was pretty pumped,” he said. “But I had no expectation of a big series.

“You always expect (the lanes to) transition,” he said, a reference to the oil conditioner moving around on the lane as more and more bowling takes place.

It forces anyone with a hook ball to have to make moves with their targeting, either where they stand or where they aim, or in most cases, both.

But it’s something you almost always have to react to, not prepare for, because you don’t know it’s happened until you throw an apparently good shot that lands somewhere other than the strike pocket.

And one more unconverted split in the middle of any of his long strings of strikes would’ve knocked his series down into the mid or high 820s.

“But I only had to move about a board with my feet all night,” Stephens said.

“The ball read (reacted) to the lane just beautifully all night.”

At the start of this column, I mentioned the cherry (the 862) on his banana split (the 240-plus average), but there were the chocolate sprinkles, too.

They came this week during his MGD Major League rolloff, when Stephens needed to strike out in the 10th frame of the final game to force a tie for the championship.

With his teammates rooting him on, he calmly threw the first two strikes, and after he got the third, he ran down about six lanes and clapped his hands together and yelled “Oh yeah!”

The momentum carried his Superior Lanes team to an easy win in the ninth- and 10th-frame tiebreaker for the title.

“That just puts a cap on the best year ever,” he said in the aftermath of the rolloff. “From last week to tonight and with the year I had in Marquette, it’s just unbelievable.”

Asked to compare the 862 and the rolloff, he said the 862 was more nerve-wracking than anything else, while he could enjoy the rolloff with his teammates.

“Team bowling, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “It’s not often you have a chance to bowl three strikes in the 10th to win a championship, or in this case, force a tie for one.”

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246.