ISHPEMING - The junior core of the Ishpeming-Negaunee high school boys bowling team is second to none.
Except for a freshman teammate, that is.
The undefeated regular-season champions of the Upper Peninsula Bowling Conference placed four bowlers among the 16 finalists at the league's boys singles tournament at Country Lanes in Ishpeming on Saturday.
The quartet started the knockout round a combined 8-0 to set up an all-Ishpeming final four.
But it was the most unlikeliest of the four - ninth-grader Andy Maki - who emerged as the champion.
The other three semifinalists were among the team's group of four juniors who started just about every match this season - Austin Wilkins, Matt Kilberg and Tyler Windahl.
Maki joined that group this year.
"Everybody on the Ishpeming team I've rooted for since I was about 12 years old," said Maki, 16. "I didn't even think I could win until we got to the last two games. Until the last ball. you never know."
All five of the regulars, which includes junior Kirk Guckenberg, averaged between 173 and 187, all among the top 10 averages in the 11-team UPBC.
But among that group, it was Maki who did the best Saturday in avoiding big mistakes, whether it was leaving splits, missing easy spares or even throwing gutter balls.
"Andy has been consistent with his arm swing and hand position this season," said I-N coach Steve Windahl. "I've told our guys all year, you've got to make your spares."
That was especially true Saturday, with a tougher-than-normal oil pattern on the lanes that made hitting the strike pocket tricky with all the big-hook, high-revolution styles the top-average teens have worked hard to develop.
It was also made tougher considering that Maki and his championship round opponent, Wilkins, finished the day bowling 14 games.
"I'm just exhausted. It's both mental and physical," Maki said. "I've just been going on adrenalin and water."
While Maki's opening six-game score of 1,035 - a 172.5 average - was tied for 12th best among the day's 67 participants, it was only barely enough to get him through to the 16-boy match-play round.
But luckily for Maki, all scores were erased for the finals round.
The 16 contenders were paired off in two-game matches, with Maki drawing bowlers from Marquette in his first two. He overcame an opening game of 120 to upend No. 4 Drew Scott, 320-296, then was more consistent in a 334-286 win over No. 5 Justin Flood.
"That first match, I just couldn't get my ball to finish (hook near the pins) in the first game," Maki said about the 120.
Then came the semifinals and his first Ishpeming opponent, Tyler Windahl, who he edged out 365-363. Windahl won the first game, 206-196, but Maki outlasted him in the closer, 169-157.
The championship looked similar, though Maki caught up more quickly. He trailed by 31 pins after six frames of the first game, but Wilkins missed two spares while Maki threw two doubles in the final four frames as the freshman grabbed a narrow 176-169 advantage.
Wilkins managed four strikes in the second game, but left himself too many tough spares and missed every one as Maki prevailed 176-134 to win the match 352-303.
Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org