It's the bane of furniture restorers but will be crucial at Saturday's girls state bowling sectionals.
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The alleys of Freeport's 4-Seasons Bowling Center will glisten with lane conditioner -- generically called "oil" -- when the St. Charles East and St. Charles North teams, plus individuals Brenna Baumgartner of Geneva, Christie Crews of Kaneland and Vivian Chau of Illinois Math and Science Academy get rolling.
Over at Highland Park Bowl in Moline, West Aurora's Jamie McCreedy, Paytynn Kuhns and Angela Sims will try to work with, and around, the "house shot" -- the basic oil pattern recommended by the Illinois High School Association for the state series.
"It's definitely part of the strategy of bowling," said St. Charles North coach Lindsay Madej, who didn't have to worry about such things as a former volleyball coach and a five-time all-state track and field athlete at Schaumburg, best in girls Class AA shot put in 1994.
Kaneland bowling coach James McKnight agreed: "Oil and oil patterns are probably more important than some high school bowlers realize."
Birthday party bowlers such as this writer merely pick up the most comfortable-feeling ball off the rack, or the heaviest ball they can lift chest-high, go into some Fred Flintstone windup and sling the resin globe toward the pins with as much oomph as they can muster -- oblivious to oil patterns that shift due to numerous balls being delivered from the start of a match to the finish.
Not so these competitive bowlers. As St. Charles North top scorers Ashley Montgomery, Bobbi Jo Buhlman, Lynn Byers, Mari Elias and Jessica Miller competed in their second-place finish at the Metea Valley regional (a new step in the state series, to pare down talent before sectionals), North Stars assistant coach Ken Buhlman advised the girls on the oil's shifting shape. The lanes are oiled before the match and not again during the six games.
Ken Buhlman is a lane conditioner whisperer.
He "is phenomenal," Madej said. "He can see it with the naked eye."
St. Charles East hopefully also has an oil baron. The Saints girls -- Erin Heuer, Dana Brandt, Erin Danosky, Emma Vitallo, Alex Kufer and Leah Bieniak -- advanced with a third-place finish at Parkside Lanes in Aurora. All teams, statewide, are chasing defending champion Waubonsie Valley and Nebraska-bound senior Julia Bond.
"We haven't bowled anybody better," Madej said.
Thursday we interrupted a 4-Seasons Bowling Center manager from, naturally, oiling lanes, for more information on the process and its affects on a bowling ball. He said the affects are complicated due to the components of the ball itself -- what it is made of, how it is drilled, how it is thrown and how fast -- and the computerized lane machines that are capable of applying varied amounts of lubricant to a lane's 40 boards.
In the "house shot," more oil is spread on the center boards than the ones nearest the gutters. The layer begins at the foul line, but toward the pins the boards (nowadays more commonly a synthetic material rather than wood that needs repeated sanding and resurfacing) are oiled less or not at all. This is where the ball gains traction, with accompanying movement.
"The more oil that's on the lane the more the ball will slide," said the 4-Seasons manager, who declined to reveal his name. "The less amounts of oil, the ball will create more friction, which will make the ball hook ... The balls will pick up the oil, so then there will be less oil on the lanes so the ball will hook more. That's why we put more oil in the middle."
Maybe not to the extent of a Ken Buhlman, but based on the ball's action the experienced high school or league bowler can see the difference between patterns.
"If you make them harder than what a regulation house shot is, they will know it," the 4-Seasons manager said.
Many know it's a factor, one that changes as the rolling, skidding, spinning balls redistribute the oil the length and width of the lane.
"Oil and how it is played certainly affects the game, scores and outcomes," McKnight said. "What works on one lane may not necessarily work on the other lane, and what works early in a game may not necessarily work later on. Since the oil and pattern are constantly evolving and changing, the bowler needs to be knowledgeable of the changes and adjust accordingly."
To adjust, a player can move one or several boards over before addressing the lane, or move their mark based on the arrows on the boards. On a player's first delivery in a frame the preferred "pocket" is between the first and third arrow for a right-handed bowler, between the first and second arrow for a lefty. The severity of a player's movement on a ball, or hook, also determines the stance.
"As the oil dries up you may have to move your mark," said Madej, who noted that oil on lanes can make bowlers overcorrect.
Onlookers will see serious bowlers at all levels toweling off their bowling balls to reduce the oil on them, but bowlers also have a variety to choose from.
Kaneland senior Christie Crews uses several types. She's got the polyurethane ball that stands a better chance of sliding through oil on a straight path. She uses another that responds better on light to medium oil. A third ball reacts well on a heavily oiled lane.
"If the oil is very heavy, from the very beginning my best chances are to use the heavy-oil ball during the game, then the polyurethane ball for spares," said Crews, who bowled a 908 series at the regional at Parkside Lanes in Aurora.
"Where there's not very much oil I'll use my 'Vibe' (for lighter conditions) and the polyurethane for spares," she said.
Lane conditioner obviously means a lot to a bowler -- but not everything.
Crews was right around her 150 average at the regional, and she attributed her advancement to something besides oil and the accuracy of her J-hooks. She credited "a good attitude, to be perfectly honest."
"When you get upset you tend to get more open frames," she said.
To which Madej concurs.
"It's not always the oil," the coach said. "Sometimes it's the human."
Established in 1996, the Aurora Central Catholic Athletic Hall of Fame welcomed its 69th student-athlete last Saturday, going back to its early days with the induction of two-sport star Ken Harkins, Class of 1970.
Presently a Montgomery resident and an award-winning employee of Harrah's Casino in Joliet, as a young Charger Harkins was on landmark basketball and baseball teams during the period in which the all-boys Roncalli Catholic High School merged with Madonna Catholic to create ACC.
A two-year varsity basketball player, Harkins was a tri-captain and leading scorer for the Chargers' first team to finish above .500, at 17-8 in 1970.
In baseball he played on varsity all four years and again, in 1970, helped ACC to its first season above .500. He capped that spring by being named ACC's student-athlete of the year.
Harkins starred at Aurora College (now Aurora University). Playing both baseball and basketball, in 1974 he was named the college's student-athlete of the year.
During ACC's Hall of Fame presentation before the Chargers' 50-47 boys basketball win over Aurora Christian, Harkins enjoyed the support of a sizable contingent including his wife of 33 years, Luanne.
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