When Joe Townsend was 13 years old, he had his heart set on getting a Willie Randolph baseball glove for Christmas.
On Christmas morning, a box that looked like it could hold a baseball mitt sat under the tree. But when he opened it, he found a bowling ball instead of a glove endorsed by his favorite New York Yankees player.
“I can’t even explain to you how I felt on that Christmas morning,” Townsend said. “I’m 100 percent sure that I cried, to the point where my mom two weeks later purchased the glove for me.”
This was the influence of his dad, Joe Townsend Sr., who was a pro bowler on an East Coast regional tour and encouraged his son to take up that sport. Joe Jr. preferred baseball.
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He played through high school and college and even played in the rookie league for the Chicago Cubs. At 23, he decided his baseball career wasn’t panning out, so he joined the military. Stationed at Fort Lewis, he discovered his own passion for bowling.
Now Townsend coaches baseball and bowling, the sport his father loved so much, at Thomas Jefferson High School. On Friday, the 15-0 Raiders girls bowling team will attempt to win its first 4A state title when the state championships begin at Narrows Plaza Bowl in University Place.
Five years ago, bowling was a struggling club sport at Thomas Jefferson — in fact, the school could barely field a team. This season, the Raiders are undefeated, having won the 4A North Puget Sound League and the 4A West Central District title for the first time.
After the Raiders beat South Kitsap to earn their first district title last weekend, Townsend sent the newspaper clipping to his three sisters in New York City.
“I said to every one of them, ‘Wouldn’t it be special if Dad could see this now?’ ” said Townsend, whose father died 16 years ago. “I’m honored to have been taught a lot of things by my dad and to have watched him roll the ball, as good and as blessed as he was.
“I wished I could have taken more time to embrace it earlier, but I’m glad that at some point I embraced it, and took up the time to learn the game. And I love him for it.”
Townsend said a pivotal moment for the program came when Jefferson beat Curtis last season. That victory gave the Raiders confidence and a belief in their abilities.
“When they won that match, I think a light came on that said they could compete with anyone,” Townsend said. “After that, they really took off.”
Townsend is assisted by Marty Lee, the father of team members Cassie and Whitney Lee. He competes in regional PBA tournaments and has 27 years of bowling experience, which he has helped pass on to the teens.
“We complement each other well, Coach Townsend and I,” Lee said. “He is so professional, and he is so good at his words — the way he explains things. That’s just not my thing. … My coaching has gotten so much better just coaching alongside Joe.”
To get ready for the state finals, Townsend had the team practice at Narrows Plaza Bowl on Wednesday. Bowlers got a chance to see how the lanes played and then have time to make adjustments as necessary.
“It is very intentional,” Townsend said about Wednesday’s practice. “Every house (bowling center) has a different shot. The oil pattern is different. It gives (the bowlers) a step forward.”
Sophomore Whitney Lee, one of four sophomores on the team, leads the Raiders with a 186 average and has made big strides in her second year.
“I have learned more about the lanes, what conditions play to my advantage,” she said. “Also, how each little aspect of bowling can change depending on what you do. If you hold your pose after you throw the ball, it will give the ball more power. If you start the ball sooner, it will also give it more power.”
Seniors Kaitlyn Larimore, Cassie Lee and Tiffany Mendenhall remember the program’s early struggles and appreciate the heights the team has reached this season.
Larimore, who is second on the team with a 168 average, said she tries to set an example of consistency.
“For me, it’s just stepping up and doing what you need to do to win if everyone else is doing bad,” Larimore said. “Being a captain, you have to stay strong and make everyone else look happy. You have to keep it going.”