LANSING, Mich. -- Bowling has always been a hobby for Lansing Eastern’s Victor Riojas. After following his interest in the sport his junior year he came into his senior year with the idea of playing both basketball and bowling.
Riojas, a 6-foot-2 forward, had been in the schools basketball program since his freshman year. During his junior year he took a break from basketball to play on the newly-formed bowling team.
His senior year, however, he didn’t want to limit himself. He grew up bowling, winning accolades as a promising Junior Gold competitor and being strong in leagues.
“…My senior year I was like ‘I really want to play basketball’, I didn’t want to miss my last year so I talked to Coach (Julius) Edwards and asked him if he could be flexible with the schedules,” Riojas said. “He said he would work with me and it ended up working out pretty good.”
Teammate Kyle Lewis’ mother made the bowling team a reality. The bowling program had previously dissolved after the 2012-2013 season.
“We’re all pretty close as far as bowling because we're from around this area,” said Riojas. “She figured we all go to Eastern, were all pretty good bowlers and that we could have a good team so she decided to see what it took to get a team started up and she succeeded in that so I was like ‘Yeah, I'm going to bowl.’”
Riojas was able to balance the schedules of the two winter sports.
“We had two to three bowling practices a week and basketball we practiced every day with games on Tuesdays and Fridays,” said Riojas. “I just made sure to let (Coach) know and I wouldn’t go to practice Monday and he’d play me however much he could the next day and so on and so forth.”
While both coaches were accommodating, Riojas was able to handle the two sports without having the coaches do the legwork.
“I didn’t talk with the bowling coach,” said Edwards. “I let Victor kind of handle that. He was very adult like and spoke to both of us individually and worked out a solution collectively.”
Eastern bowling head coach Billy Salazar didn’t have a problem with Riojas playing both sports either.
“Victor called me over the summer and said ‘I’m thinking about trying out for basketball,’” said Salazar. “I told him that's fine you do what you've got to do, it's your senior year, I don’t want you to have any regrets. When you're done with school I don't want you looking back and saying ‘Man, I wish I would’ve played basketball,’ I told him you make it to whatever bowling meets you can and you go ahead and play basketball.”
Riojas brought a similar attitude to both bowling and basketball.
“Just keeping the positive energy,” said Riojas. “Keeping positive no matter what knowing we have a chance every game or meet and going hard everyday in practice no matter what.”
The results, however, were polar opposites. The basketball team finished this season 1-19, while the bowling team, after capturing the C.A.A.C Blue title last year, completed the season this year with winning a state tournament title.
Bringing home the hardware
Although Riojas played for the basketball team longer, the state championship is his favorite athletic memory at Eastern.
“We knew what we had to do, our competition last year was way higher,” said Riojas. “This year we had the same team so we kind of knew we would be up at the top. We came in way stronger, everybody was better. We all bonded together well as a team way better than last year, it being our first year together, so we knew we would qualify for regionals it was just how would we do in states, how far would we get after that.”
Eastern defeated Sturgis and Owosso on their way to the school’s first championship since 1981.
They defeated powerhouse Flint Kearsley in the title game by a score of 1,444-1,2888 on March 4.
Riojas, who averaged 218 this season and was third team all-state in 2015, bowled a 202 in the championship game which was good for third on the team. The thought of the championship being the first for the school in over 35 years still leaves Riojas at a loss for words.
“It's just...it’s crazy because that's a long time...a really long time,” said Riojas. “I don't know it just seems like it's not real but we’re the most recent state championship team and nobody can take that away from us.
“It got to the last couple frames and we were all just looking at each other like ‘Man we won’, because the team we beat, they were back to back state champions. They were the team to beat for years and that’s all people heard was ‘Flint Kearsley this, Flint Kearsley that.’ So us winning was almost like, ‘How?!’”
Salazar added,“Just seeing these kids come together from youth leagues to win a state title like that but then afterwards to find out Lansing Eastern hadn't won a state title since 1981. That was a long drought for the sports program. I think afterwards we all kind of realized how big it was.”
As the lone senior this year Riojas brought leadership to Eastern’s bowling team.
“Victor has the same emotional level whether he’s doing good or bad nothing fazes him. If I needed him to hit three strikes to win a match he was my guy,” said Salazar. “Victor was always my last bowler, my anchor guy, because I knew he was going to come through, nothing rattles him. He was more of leader by example, he didn't say much to the kids, but in the state tournament I was really impressed with him. I told him afterwards I was proud of his leadership. He actually was a little more vocal with the guys; I saw it in his eyes how bad he wanted it.
“That’s the most, in two years that I've coached him, that's the most I’ve seen him step up and be a leader.”