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Stow-Munroe Falls girls bowling coach Rachael Ritzinger knew her team was capable of competing with the state's best squads.
Competing with them and winning a state title, however, are two different things.
In the end, Stow exceeded its coach's expectations, riding a wave of momentum to the Division I state girls bowling title March 10 at Wayne Webb's Columbus Bowl.
"I'm still kind of in shock," Ritzinger said. "Going into the day, I was looking to get top five. It didn't hit me that they were in it to win it until the last match."
It's the first state title won by a Stow-Munroe Falls girls team since the Bulldogs won the state volleyball title in 1992.
During the qualifying round, Stow stayed steady, rolling a 919 in game one, a 947 in game two and an 830 in game three. Stow's three-game total of 2,693 pins was good for fourth place heading into the three Baker games.
"I was just telling them to keep your head in it," Ritzinger said. "Our game was going to be most successful if we were able to make our spares. I told them to keep grinding on it.
"I think they were more locked in than I was," she added. "I just kind of had to stand back and watch."
Stow stayed locked in during the three Baker games, rolling a 554 series (232-143-179) to maintain its fourth-place position. Stow finished qualifying with 3,250 pins. Beavercreek finished first in the qualifying round with 3,407 pins.
Individually in the qualifying rounds, Stow was led by senior Meghan Ritzinger, who finished tied for 20th with a three-game series of 561 (170-188-203). Senior Annie Taylor was right behind, finishing 22th with a 558 series (205-215-138).
"I've had the same emotion about it all season," Rachael Ritzinger said of coaching her younger sister. "I wasn't expecting her necessarily to be our top bowler, but I always expect her to give her best."
Senior Valerie Biley finished 33rd with a 543 series (192-172-179), while sophomore Taylor Roberts finished 40th with a 528 series (187-170-171). Sophomore Haley Roberts rounded out the individual scores, finishing 48th with a 506 series (165-201-139).
Stow opened the elimination round by facing fifth-seeded Centerville. The Bulldogs won the match in three straight Baker games (166-162, 178-175, 183-170), but Ritzinger was anything but relaxed during the match.
"The first match against Centerville, they were giving me mini heart attacks," Ritzinger said. "There were all so close."
Ritzinger said she was even more nervous during the semifinal match against top-seeded Beavercreek, who was the defending state runner-up. The Beavers opened the match with a 174-156 win in the first Baker game.
"We lost the first game and then came back and killed it from there," Ritzinger said.
Indeed, Stow rolled its best Baker game of the tournament in game two to win 263-183. The Bulldogs won game three 203-196 and game four 172-166 to reach the final.
Stow faced another test in the final, as it faced defending state champion Troy, but the coach's nerves were gone by that point.
"Surprisingly, the last game I was calm," Ritzinger said. "We just won in it in three. It's still shocking to me."
The Bulldogs did some of their best bowling in the final, rolling above 200 in all three Baker games, beating Troy 224-216, 211-182, 212-179.
Taylor has committed to continue her bowling career at Wright State University, while Meghan Ritzinger and Biley also will graduate this spring.
"It's going to be hard on us, but we'll be OK," coach Ritzinger said of the graduation losses. She noted winning the state title will only help the program in the future.
"I think that it gives incoming freshmen and the rest of the team something to shoot for," Ritzinger said. "It's going to be harder and harder every year with the seniors we're losing, but we've got to make it our big goal."