Bob Tschinkel finally ventured out of his house on Tuesday.
It happened to be the five-year anniversary of his leaving the hospital following a 57-day stay for leukemia treatment.
This time, the Northern Highlands bowling coach ended a self-imposed COVID lockdown – which had lasted since early January – to attend the Bergen County Women Coaches Association All-County selection meeting.
Although he’s only been able to communicate with his bowlers virtually, his Highlanders have put together a banner season.
“I stepped away from coaching last month, and I basically locked myself in the house and didn’t leave,” Tschinkel said. “I was like, I’m not going anywhere that anyone else is in a crowded public setting.”
The 68-year-old has been immunocompromised since 2017 as a result of his cancer treatments, which means contracting any variant of the coronavirus could be dire.
“It wasn’t a decision that I came to lightly,” Tschinkel said. “But, it’s not just that I could get sick, it would be worse for me.
“I don’t want to go back in the hospital, I spent enough time there.”
Reaching a decision
This is the second time Tschinkel has had to step away from the Highlanders’ program. He was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome (which later developed into leukemia) during the 2016-17 season and had to step away from his duties.
Treatment, which included a bone marrow transplant, worked. He went into remission and returned to coach the Highlanders the following season.
Even during the abbreviated 2021 campaign, Tschinkel felt alright about coaching due to the NJSIAA mask mandates in effect for all indoor sports.
Things changed when COVID cases spiked earlier this winter.
“I had four kids on the team that had COVID during Christmas break,” he recalled. “Then, I went to our first match right after New Year’s, and the team we were bowling adjacent to – not against – nobody had a mask on… and I thought, I just can’t put myself at risk.”
Staying in touch
Northern Highlands assistant principal of athletics Mike Koth was with the Highlanders girls when they competed in Monday’s NJSIAA team finals at Bowlero North Brunswick. He is one of several administrators that have been “coaching” in Tschinkel’s absence.
“I don’t help at all,” he joked. “It’s all the girls, they’re doing a great job. Myself, Joe Occhino our principal, and our assistant principal Dr. LaRocca, stepped up and helped provide what we could.”
One of the things they were able to provide was communication between coach and bowlers. They used Zoom to allow Tschinkel to watch matches (when permitted), and even had a laptop set up for the Jan. 28 Bergen County girls championship final, which senior Sara Holden won.
Video streaming was not allowed at the NJSIAA tournament, though.
“It was pretty difficult, because we couldn’t really have any direction from him at all [Monday],” Holden said. “We were just trying to think of what he would tell us to and try to help each other as a team.”
Impact on the players
On Feb. 5, the Northern Highlands girls earned their first sectional championship since 2013, when Tschinkel was named The Record’s Girls Bowling Coach of the Year after his first season at the school. He had previously coached his daughter, Karen – a standout on Immaculate Heart’s dynastic teams of the 2000s – and others in the Maywood Youth Athletic Association.
Holden, who joined the Highlanders as a freshman, “knew absolutely nothing about bowling. He kind of has to start from scratch with a lot of people, and he’s just really patient and willing to come with you on a random Sunday night to help the team practice bowling.
“It’s just little things like that that have really helped us grow as a team and get better.”
Tschinkel has been emailing the Highlanders all season to stay in touch and give what advice he can. Holden, senior Jessica Moss and junior Jaclyn Paglieri will return to North Brunswick for the NJSIAA individual finals on Friday.
Paglieri posted Northern Highlands’ best finish at sectionals (eighth), a big step for a first-year varsity bowler.
“I play softball, and I used to be a pitcher,” she said. “So, Coach Tschinkel kind of worked with what I knew already, and then helped me develop it into a way I could bowl.”
Looking to the future
Whether or not Tschinkel will be able to return next season remains unknown. As he puts it, “I take life one day at a time. I can’t really think that far ahead.
“Ideally, I would love to come back, but I guess I need to see where this virus is going and how things play out. Even if I do come back, I foresee myself being very, very careful.”
He still goes for regular blood work, and his doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering have told him things hinge upon whether or not his immune system is working.
“We hope to have him back,” Koth said. “You’re not going to find anyone more dedicated to bowling and young people than Coach Tschinkel. He’s great to have around.”
There is one milestone that Tschinkel is anticipating in the coming months.
“April 21 will be five years cancer-free,” he said, “and I get to ring the bell.”
Greg Tartaglia is a high school sports reporter for NorthJersey.com. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis from our Varsity Aces team, subscribe today. To get breaking news directly to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter and download our app.