SIOUX CITY | Ten years ago when she was 8, Mari Pizzini's mother signed her up for youth bowling league on Saturday mornings and said, "Have fun."
"My mom used to bowl before I was born. She thought that I would be good at it," said Pizzini, who said six years passed before she actually began to enjoy the sport. "I didn't start liking bowling at all until I was 14."
Pizzini made friends through her participation in bowling and the sport helped her travel to competitions in 15 different states. Now, the freshman from Helena, Montana, is bowling at the collegiate level for Morningside College.
The Sioux City college has had a competitive bowling program for five years. Over that period of time, head coach Steve Gonshorowski, better known as "Coach G" to his athletes, said interest in the scholarship sport has grown immensely.
"The first year we started, we had seven bowlers and we had a mixed team. Now, we have about 30," he said. "They've all been part of high school bowling. We have state medal winners and kids who have come off state championship teams."
The Mustangs, who now have enough bowlers for two men's and two women's teams, practice three to four times a week. Practice starts with stretching, followed by drill work. Gonshorowski said the teams scrimmage for a while, warm down and then participate in a "fun activity" before calling it a day.
"We have injuries just like the other sports -- knees and elbows more so than anything," he said. "When we bowl an actual event, it's grueling. These kids are bowling for like seven hours on a Saturday and they're standing the whole time."
The teams travel to 10 bowling meets a year. The regular competitive season begins in early October and runs through early February. Post-season competition kicks off in March with sectionals. In week 13 of play, the men were ranked 51st among 173 collegiate teams in the men's division and the women 47th among 139 collegiate teams in the women's division.
"They've gotten better and better and better every year," Gonshorowki said. "They've come a long way. They've learned how to deal and adjust with each other."
In December, the Mustangs competed in a tournament in Las Vegas that had 64 men's and women's teams. This month, they'll travel to a tournament in Chicago that Gonshorowski said will draw in the neighborhood of 140 men's and women's teams. He said each bowler is allowed to bring five bowling balls to competitions.
Bowling ball coverstocks, which include plastic, urethane, reactive resin and particle, affect the ball's performance on the lane.
"If we take two men's and two women's teams, we're probably taking close to 120 bowling balls," Gonshorowski said. "That's a lot of weight."
Ally Dudley, a freshman from Andover, Minnesota, who bowls with a 14-pound ball, said a lot of practice is needed to be a successful college bowler. She said tournament play is both physically and mentally demanding. As she bowled at Rush Lanes during a team practice, pieces of blue kinesiology tape were fixed to her right arm. Dudley, who has had tendinitis, said the tape provides support.
"There's a lot of endurance needed, because you're standing for seven hours cheering on your teammates," said Dudley who used to play softball and basketball and participate in cheerleading. "I think bowling is less recognized as a sport. The more people know about it, the more rewarding it can be."
Alex Eukovich, a senior, started bowling when he was 4. His family partially owns a bowling alley in Chicago.
"I was always involved and always around the bowling alley," he said. "(Bowling) takes not only a lot of physical skill and ability, but also mental ability, probably even more so."
Making the move from high school to college competition, Eukovich said wasn't easy because of the difficulty oil patterns can pose. Bowling lanes are coated with oil to protect the wood. The way the oil is applied to the wood, or the oil pattern, has an effect on the bowling ball's speed and direction.
"The patterns are definitely more challenging than they were in high school. Just the atmosphere in general has a lot to do with your play," he said. "You're going to encounter a lot of bad habits. You have to make sure that you stay on top of your game and that you're ready to make those necessary changes."
Eukovich said his most memorable experience bowling in college so far was last year's tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The Mustangs were down by two in a best-of-five series, but they came back to win three straight and the tournament.
"I'll never forget that one out of my four years," he said. "It's a fun sport that does require a lot of work and practice, but, at the end of the day, bowling is a sport that you can do all your life."
Kyle Kommes, a junior from Le Mars, Iowa, got his start bowling for fun in leagues when he was in fourth grade. Soon, he developed a passion for the sport.
"Every single year it got bigger and bigger," said Kommes, who was recruited to bowl for the Mustangs.
His freshman year, the team made the sectional tournament for the first time.
"I got to bowl with that team. Just being a part of Morningside history by being part of that team was incredible," said Kommes whose goal has been to improve each year. "I started out with a really low average my freshman year and I got it up last year. I just want to keep it up this year."