Philip O’Neill’s path to and through high school bowling has not been conventional. But the Catholic High senior is where his coach thought he would be to end his career — competing in Friday’s singles competition at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA Bowling Championship.
“There was potential that I saw there all along,” Catholic coach Robin Deck said. “I knew Philip had the chance to be one of the best bowlers we have ever had. I kept my fingers crossed, hoping it would be realized. And it has.”
O’Neill enters the singles competition set for 1:30 p.m. Friday at All-Star Lanes in Baton Rouge as the top boys seed with a 229 season average — 35 pins better than a year ago when he was the No. 4 bowler for the Bears.
“My junior year my form was abrupt and my follow-through wasn’t good. I got to smooth everything out,” O’Neill said. “And because I also got stronger, I can throw the ball harder and generate more pin action. Last year I used a 14-pound ball and this year I used a 15-pound ball.”
It has been quite a ride for O’Neill. He was a middle school basketball player who never bowled competitively until joining the Catholic team as a freshman. Incredibly, O’Neill was the LHSAA singles runner-up as a freshman when the format was based on postseason performance.
The Bears advanced to the LHSAA’s final four as a team the next two years. A back issue hindered O’Neill as a sophomore. There were mental struggles too. Deck’s initial plan to change O’Neill’s two-handed style — a form made popular by pro bowler Jason Belmonte — was also a factor.
“I desperately tried to convince him he should be bowling one-handed. You don’t bowl two-handed at Catholic High I told him,” Deck said with a smile. “Then I watched him and I thought, ‘This kid could be one of the best we’ve ever had in our program. I’ve got to let him bowl two-handed.’ Now all of sudden everybody is doing it.”
O’Neill credits Catholic assistant coach Butch Blankenship for helping to correct his form over the summer. Completing in the Junior Gold tourney, a national event held in Dallas last summer, built his confidence. Deck sees another key change.
“I personally think the biggest difference has been your head game,” Deck told O’Neill. “Somewhere between junior and senior year the maturity came. He now does not let his emotions get the best of him. Last year, if he bowled a bad game, you knew he wasn’t getting over it and it wouldn’t get better from there.”
Since Catholic did not qualify for Thursday’s team competition, is there more pressure? O’Neill says no, noting that this is his third LHSAA singles competition. He has a season-best series of 733 and a top individual game of 276.
“It would mean a lot if I won,” O’Neill said. “Really, it is anybody's title. The other reason I think it is a good year is that I feel like I helped prepare the team for next year.”