When Ryan Carlisi walked into Slocum’s Bowling Center after he won the NJSIAA state individual tournament, he saw an article on him already laminated and hanging on an air conditioner.
“It makes me think, you never forget where you come from,” said Carlisi, who won the title at Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick on Feb. 15.
Carlisi, who grew up in Ewing, moved to Hamilton several years ago with his mother when his parents divorced. He still bowls at Slocum’s, where he also works four days per week. He grew up bowling there under the tutelage of his father, Paul, who still lives in Ewing, and he had the support of local bowlers then and now.
They cheered wildly for him when he was a 5-year-old just starting out on a junior league team with the likes of then-teenagers Dave Slocum and current Ewing High School head coach Dave Angebranndt, and even louder as he got older and could challenge some of the older team members.
“You knew,” Angebranndt said. “You could see the potential. Just the amount of time he spent in a bowling alley. At 5-6 we’re all throwing a ball the same way. He’d get angry if he didn’t bowl well. As he started getting a little older, when he was 9 or 10, you started to think he could be something special.”
They cheered again when he won the state championship. Students at Steinert High School, which he now attends, gave him a standing ovation in the cafeteria the day after he won the bowling title, but no one from Steinert came to see him bowl. Three Ewing High School bowling team members were there to witness his triumph.
“Every time they have practice, I practice with them,” Carlisi said. “There are a few kids on the bowling team that are some of my best friends that I’ve grown up with. I stay connected through them. I always practice with them and hang out outside the bowling alley too. I asked them if they wanted to come watch me bowl.”
The junior at Steinert won it the hard way, since the Spartans do not have a NJSIAA-sanctioned bowling team. No Mercer County high school aside from Ewing, which bowls in the Burlington County Scholastic League, does.
“It’s good for local sports,” Angebranndt said. “It’s great for Mercer County to see a kid win a state title for his school. It might lead to other Mercer County schools getting programs for their school.
“To see a kid who is a local kid win, hopefully it helps spark something in the area,” he added. “Instead of bowling against Burlington County schools, and driving 45 minutes to some of our matches, we could bowl closer.”
Most state champs are bowlers who compete with their high school teams all winter. Carlisi, who celebrated his title by getting leveled by a wicked case of the flu, had prep work to do just to enter the tournament.
“You have to prove that you bowl in a league during the school bowling season,” he said. “Boys have to average a minimum of 180. If your school has a team, there is no minimum average requirement, which kind of puts us individuals at a disadvantage.”
For a guy like Carlisi, however, it wasn’t tough to overcome, since his average is 224. He has bowled 12 300 games, and his high series is 824. He already owns four Junior Bowler Tour titles and two Pennsylvania Junior Bowler Tour titles. He placed seventh in the Junior Gold Youth Nationals in Chicago in his first time competing two years ago.
‘I’ve been around bowling a long time, and what he has is a natural talent. It’s something you don’t teach.’
Those numbers and achievements come from a lifetime love affair with the lanes, sparked by his dad. Paul Carlisi said he “just fell in love” with bowling at age 18, and has rolled 36 300 games while winning several tournaments.
“When Ryan was born, the wife and I spent a lot of time in the bowling alley, and he used to come with us,” Paul said. “He’s been bowling ever since he’s been able to walk. He would walk up to the line and just push the ball down.
“I guess he didn’t have much of a choice,” Paul added with a laugh.
It did not take long for his dad’s passion to infect Carlisi. His earliest memories revolve around bowling.
“I don’t remember not bowling,” he said. “I bowled on a league team as a 5-year-old with four others on my team who were 15 and 16. Two of them are actually Danny Slocum of Slocum’s bowling alley and the other is Dave Angebranndt. Life is bowling. It’s like eat, sleep and bowl.”
He maintains that lifestyle as an employee at Slocum’s and uses their lanes as often as he can.
“It’s where I grew up,” Carlisi said. “It’s my stomping grounds.”
It’s no coincidence that his passion and dedication helped earn him a state crown.
“You see a kid who’s always been around a bowling alley,” Angebranndt said. “He lives and breathes it. And you see a kid whose hard work and dedication to the sport pay off. I was not surprised, but happy for the kid. I’m happy to see how hard the kid’s worked since he was about 5 or 6 years old.”
Angebranndt would have loved to have had Carlisi on his team. He welcomes him to Ewing’s practices any time he can make it. The Ewing boys’ bowling team narrowly missed moving on in the state champoionships this year, finishing in third place in the Central Jersey Group 2 championships on Feb. 11. Having Carlisi on their team could have made a huge difference.
“Ryan has bowled with us a few times at practice,” Angebranndt said. “If he asked me to come bowl at practice, I wouldn’t turn him down because when he’s there he raises the level of everyone else.”
Without the option to bowl for Ewing High, Carlisi quickly looked into bowling as an individual in the NJSIAA event after enrolling at Steinert.
“He was well aware of that tournament and how it runs,” Paul said. “He knew who the tournament was available to from friends, so he definitely wanted to try it.”
As a freshman, Carlisi bowled a 645 in the qualifying round, but the cut to make sectionals was 683. He made the 709 cut score with one pin to spare as a sophomore, and finished 17th in the state.
This time, there was no stopping him. Carlisi rolled a 787 series in the second qualifying round, earning him a third seed in the stepladder competition. He then defeated Dayton’s 5th-seeded Evan Weinberg, 235-183, in the quarterfinals and Woodbridge’s 2nd-seeded James Stoveken, 237-217, in a tense semifinal.
That set up a showdown with Egg Harbor’s top-seeded Matthew Stephens, who Carlisi defeated, 244-213. The match was close after the first four frames with each guy picking up two strikes and two spares. But Carlisi found his groove at the perfect time, reeling off six straight strikes to win it.
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Angebranndt said. “It’s not something I can say I did. I won as part of a team at Ewing. As an individual, the road to win a state championship is a lot harder. As a team, you have to bowl three games. As an individual, you’re battling everybody and probably bowling 15-16 games. For him to show that consistency across 16 games is impressive.”
Carlisi’s focus was sharp during his run, as he refused to dwell on the big picture.
“I was just focused on making good shots and striking,” he said. “In the 10th frame, I knew I won once I threw my first ball to shut him out, and I heard my dad yell ‘Yes! That’s it!’ Then I knew.”
Paul’s shout was as much relief as it was celebration.
“As much as I’ve bowled and been in tournaments, I’ve never been so nervous in my life,” Paul said. “My heart felt like it was gonna come out of my chest. I was so happy, so proud. I’ve come to a point with my bowling, where I peaked, I’m on the down slope. It’s his time now, and I enjoy watching him do well. I’m hoping he outshines me.”
Carlisi’s success is a tribute to his many mentors, including his dad. Paul said he just taught his son the basics, but Carlisi feels he provides an added technical knowledge.
“My dad drills my bowling balls,” Carlisi said. “So he knows what balls to use on what lane conditions, based on the reaction I get when I throw a shot.”
Once again, father gives most of the credit to son.
“He’s a raw talent,” Paul said. “I’ve been around bowling a long time, and what he has is a natural talent. It’s something you don’t teach. His physical game, you can’t really teach the way he throws a bowling ball, it’s just natural. I kind of guide him the right way, and if he needs support I kind of help him. But a lot of it is him.”
In the midst of fighting sickness over Presidents’ Day Weekend, Carlisi said his accomplishment still had not sunk in yet. He told his mom it was just a case of winning another tournament, and he said her reply was “‘No way! It’s the state title!’ But I look at it as I went there to win, and I did.”
He will go back to try and win it again next year and attempt to become the first Mercer County boy to ever win back-to-back titles. His dad feels it could happen.
“This was a great accomplishment, and I’m pretty sure there’s many more to come,” Paul said. “He’s got a future in the sport. But we still want to see him go to college. We’ll see if his bowling can maybe get him a scholarship.”
Hey, why not? It’s already gotten him recognition at school and where his bowling career started in Ewing more than a decade earlier.
“I knew I was OK,” Carlisi said. “I didn’t know I’d be a state champion.”
Justin Feil conducted additional reporting for this article.