On most days, Heritage Lanes is filled with local bowlers out to throw a few games or drink a couple beers.
But not this week.
Since Monday, the bowling center at 1301 W. Lincoln Road was packed with the top players in the world who congregated in Kokomo to compete in one of the highest-ranking tournaments in the country.
Bowlers traveled to the city from places as far away as Australia, Denmark, Sweden, England and Mexico to face off in the Professional Bowlers Association’s Storm Cup.
Sixty-four players started out, but over the past three days, that number was whittled down based on their total scores throughout the tournament.
And on Wednesday evening, just four players remained to compete in the final round and a chance to take home $20,000.
Leading the pack was Australian bowler Jason Belmonte, the No. 1 ranked player in the world last season. EJ Tackett, who was born and raised just down the road in Huntington before moving to Bluffton, sat in second place. Nick Pate and Anthony Simonsen held the third and fourth spots.
As the players warmed up for the final round, around 300 spectators lined the two lanes where players would face off. Large cameras stood on top of tables filming the action for a livestream on the website flobowling.com.
Kaitlyn Hobbs and Michael Hilton sat watching the warmup. For Hilton, who bowls in a Sunday league at Heritage Lanes, it felt a little surreal to watch the best players in the world standing in the same spot where he bowls.
“They all have their unique styles, and they’re so much better than your average bowler,” Hilton said. “They’re just amazing.”
As the final show got underway, Heritage Lanes Operation Manager Zach Spencer worked away in the background to make sure everything went smoothly. It was a moment for which he and his team at the bowling center have prepared for the past month.
“Running a bowling center, you dream of doing something like this,” Spencer said. “But there’s so much stuff you have to be ready for — stuff you don’t even think about.”
The pressure was even higher, considering the bowling center hasn’t hosted a national tournament of top players since 1967. Spencer said they landed the Storm Cup this year after PBA officials reached out to owner David Small to see if he could host the match.
And of course they could, Spencer said.
“We’re here in this little town of Kokomo, and we’re getting the best in the world playing here,” he said. “I’ve been telling our staff for weeks that this is a big deal. It may not be a big deal to people who don’t bowl a whole lot, but to me and David, it’s a huge deal.”
It was also a huge deal to the bowlers. Not only was $20,000 on the line, but the points scored at the tournament also went toward the bowlers’ count, which determines where they stand in next year’s PBA rankings.
But if anyone had a home court advantage Wednesday, it was Tackett. Growing up in Huntington, where his parents owned the local bowling alley, the 29-year-old frequently traveled to Kokomo for games and tournaments. In fact, he even played against Spencer when they were both in high school.
Now, he was back at Heritage Lanes after winning 15 PBA titles and earning over $981,000 in winnings since he started playing professionally in 2009.
“It’s awesome to be this close to home for a bowling tournament,” Tackett said. “It’s nice to come in, and everyone is typically rooting for you because you do live so close. That’s always really cool. It’s a good feeling.”
But his advantage didn’t hold on Wednesday. Tackett struggled to land strikes as he faced off against Pate, whose final frames were marked with a row of X’s. In the end, Tackett’s two-strike game couldn’t contend with Pate, who handily won 237-186.
That left Pate and Belmonte in the final match. Both started off with a row of strikes until frame seven, when they both landed spares. The game came down to the final frame, in which Pate needed to hit two strikes to pull ahead of Belmonte. He landed the first strike, but fell one pit short on the second roll.
Belmonte narrowly defeated Pate 249-243 and walked away with a trophy — and the $20,000 winnings that brought his lifetime earnings to over $1.81 million.
Manager Spencer said it’s hard to fathom the level of skill the players brought to Heritage Lanes during the tournament. He said casual players can only watch in awe at their prowess.
“Everyone thinks bowling is just bowling, but it’s way more than that,” Spencer said. “It’s mind-boggling the level that these guys are at. They’re staying ahead of the moves. They’re making ball changes. They’re analyzing the other players.”
He said it wasn’t just an honor to host one of the biggest national tournaments in the country. It was an honor to simply watch bowlers who are the best in the world do what they do best, and do it in Kokomo.
“When you say best in the world, it’s literally the best in the world,” Spencer said. “It’s not just the United States. It’s all kind of nutty.”