Katie Conrad really enjoyed the time she spent in California.
The senior bowler is a Palatine native and spent her first few years of school at Gray M. Sanborn Elementary, but moved with her family to Napa Valley after the fourth grade, where her mother Susan was employed at one of the noted local wineries.
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But as so often happens in this topsy-turvy world, family employment transfers brought her back to home to Palatine for her last year of middle school year, and then high school.
Pirates bowling coach John Burke, as well as Conrad's Palatine teammates, teachers and fans, couldn't be happier that the stellar player returned to her Midwest roots.
The senior has been rock solid over the years as a key member of the Pirates bowling team, and never did Conrad shine more than last season.
She led a strong team effort by finishing seventh overall in the Mid-Suburban League with a 185 average, then got on a postseason roll that lead all the way the state finals tournament at Cherry Bowl Lanes in Rockford.
Then a junior, Conrad didn't disappoint as she finished 20th overall amongst the top prep bowlers in Illinois.
"She enjoyed such a great run in the playoffs," said Burke. "I don't think she threw a bad shot all the way through."
"Katie is such an incredible athlete and hard worker," added Burke. "She's helped take our program to the next level."
Even with her tremendous performance at the regional and sectional meets, it wasn't a given that Conrad would advance to the state tourney last season.
Due to a complicated IHSA system of scoring, she had to wait two days after sectionals to find out that she had been awarded an "at large" bid to the finals based on her performance.
"It was so nerve-wracking," said Conrad of the 48 hour wait to learn her fate. "I was stalking the IHSA website, checking to see when they would post the results. I didn't find out until third period in school that Monday."
And although she was a late addition to the state qualifiers, it obviously did not affect her performance in the least.
"I didn't put any pressure on myself at all (in Rockford)," said Conrad. "I was motivated, and it was an amazing experience."
"There were large crowds and it was noisy and crazy there, but even though it was my first time at state, I didn't let that bother me. I just relaxed and had fun."
The fact that Conrad excelled at last season's biggest stage didn't surprise Burke at all.
"Katie's a leader," said Burke. "She's basically another coach for us out on the lanes, and after college if she ever did want to come back and coach for us, we'd welcome her with open arms."
As a matter of fact, Burke asked Conrad to become a "recruiter" for the program this season, and the senior spent time early in the school year visiting freshman classes to talk up bowling.
She did such a great job that Palatine added a record 13 bowlers to their freshman team.
"She was almost too good of a recruiter," joked Burke, but Conrad really enjoyed the experience.
"I'm decent at public speaking," said Conrad, who is a member of the National Honor Society, "and it was rewarding to see all the young kids who came in to the program."
It's been an incredible ride to excellence for Conrad, who didn't pick up a bowling ball competitively until she was a frosh -- but her learning curve has been nothing short of extraordinary.
In three short years she's become of one the state's top competitors.
"I had played a lot of sports off and on," said the senior, "and my first couple of years I was on the lacrosse team (at Palatine), but the more I improved on the lanes, the more I realized that bowling was my sport."
"I wasn't that good my first year -- I would call myself at that point a 'typical freshman' -- but after my freshman year I made every effort to work as hard as I could at getting better at the sport. I love the spirit of bowling."
She's been encouraged over the years by her mom, a former high school bowler herself, and Burke is almost as appreciative of Susan's assistance as he is about having her talented daughter on his squad.
"I call her Radar O'Reilly," said Burke of Susan. "It seems like she knows what the team needs before we even ask her. She's the epitome of everything a team mom should be."
Now that Conrad is a senior, Burke realizes her leadership skills will be needed more than ever during the current Mid-Suburban League season, as the Pirates field a fairly young team. But he wants to make sure she doesn't put the world on her shoulders.
"I do expect her to be a leader," said Burke, "but the most important thing for Katie is not to put too much pressure on herself. This is her senior year and the most important thing is that she enjoy it."
"I know it'll be different being a senior," agrees Conrad. "I know how much the underclassmen look up to the seniors, and I do take it upon myself to coach the girls as much as possible."
"We've got a strong team , so it'll be my job to keep everyone motivated and try to separate myself from the pressure as much as possible."
One thing that has relieved a lot of stress from the senior's to do list is that she's already committed to a college, Saint Louis University, with the goal of going into human resources -- where her people skills will be put to good use.
Conrad said she "fell in love with the school" on her first visit, and she knows that it'll be an advantage to be in a major city while pursuing a degree in business; but says she's glad that it's "close enough that it will be easy to come home for a weekend."
SLU does not have an interscholastic bowling team (they have a club team), but the senior chose the school based on its academic record even though Burke said she's received a lot of interest from other major "bowling" colleges.
But for now it'll be business as usual in the classroom and on the lanes for Palatine, as she tries to lead her team to a possible MSL title and reach her individual goal of finishing in the top five of the conference individually.
And might another trip to Cherry Bowl Lanes be in the offing? It's not out of the question by any means.
"I want to push myself -- and our team -- to go as far as possible," says Conrad. "We're looking forward to a good season. We finished third in conference last year, and this year I believe we can do even better. We've got a nice group of juniors and seniors and we've got a lot of potential."
And leave it to long-time coach Burke to put into perspective what Conrad's legacy will be after this year's campaign is complete.
"Our AD," said Burke, "always poses a question to our athletes -- 'will you leave the program in better shape than when you came into it?' In Katie's case, the answer is a definite yes."
And it may be bittersweet for Conrad when the year is done and she heads off to college in Missouri, where she's definitely excited to attend.
But for now it's her senior year of studies, and oh yes, a little intense competition on the lanes.
"Right now," said Conrad, "I'm definitely focused on bowling."