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Titans Of The Lanes: Traverse City West bowlers Jordan LaFleur, Taylor Phillips and Alyssa Tanner have eyes on state gold

Jan. 14—TRAVERSE CITY — A conference championship. A regional championship. A state championship.

In bowling terms, winning all three would be akin to picking up the rarely-seen and often-feared 5-7-10 split.

But knocking down those three metaphorical pins and bringing home those three literal titles is exactly what Jordan LaFleur, Taylor Phillips, Alyssa Tanner and the Traverse City West Titans are hoping to accomplish in 2024.

Might as well just call that trio "Ghidorah," because West's three-headed Division 1 All-State, Record-Eagle Dream Team monster is burning down the competition, and it will take a lot more than Godzilla to stop LaFleur, Phillips and Tanner from winning that triple crown of championships.

"It is a unique situation that, as a coach, you might never see or might never have that much talent all at the same time," West head coach Aaron Phillips said. "But even with all of this talent at the same time, we've been struggling to even fill a full girls team. We have a full team for the first time this year, and it's exciting. But there's a lot of work to be done still."

The Titans finished runner-up at the D1 state championship finals in 2023 after winning their 13th consecutive Great Northwest High School Bowling Conference title and rolling their way to a regional crown all while struggling to fill a full five-person team. Clearly, two out of three legs of the triple crown is nothing to sneeze at, but the Titans want it all this time around.

When LaFleur, Phillips and Tanner were asked the big question — "Is this the year?" — all three looked at each other, smiled and laughed waiting for someone to answer before LaFleur finally said what they were all thinking.

"I want to say 'yes,'" LaFleur said.

"I want to say 'yes,' too," Tanner followed up. "After last year, we know what we're capable of. And last year was kind of rough not having a full team. Now we have a full team, and we know what we can do."

The Titan trio is still building off that historic 2023 campaign that saw all three earn D1 First-Team All-State honors, all three named to the Record-Eagle Dream Team with Phillips taking home Bowler of the Year accolades, and all three reach the Elite Eight of the individual state championship finals.

This year, they are all hoping to maintain a 200 average or better throughout the season. Not an easy feat, but one all three are capable of accomplishing.

LaFleur broke her own Traverse City youth league record last month when she fired a 749 series at Lucky Jack's with games of 249, 267 and 233 — eclipsing her own mark of 734 she set the previous season. Tanner racked up a 695 that same Saturday to give the top three female records in Traverse City to LaFleur, Phillips and Tanner.

"Their potential hasn't been tapped all the way yet, which is kind of crazy because they're the top trio in the state — hands down," Coach Phillips said. "The difference between this year and last year is remarkable. There are still gains being made. They're going to have a better performance this year because they're better than they were last year."

For the two seniors — LaFleur and Phillips — this season is their last chance at high school glory on the lanes. For the junior Tanner, it's her last chance to win with two of her best friends.

"I'm not going to get emotional, but I am so excited for this year because it's my last year with these two — and they're like my best friends," Tanner said. "I want to go out on a high note with them because I won't have them next year. Having them these two years has definitely changed my entire world."

Tanner said she doesn't allow Phillips or LaFleur to talk about 2024 being their senior year.

"We're literally not allowed to," LaFleur said, laughing.

"She gets angry at us," Phillips joked.

"It's forbidden," Tanner chimed in.

But after the laughter quieted for just a moment, LaFleur looked at Tanner and said, "I so want to make this year good for you."

And that small gesture of kindness perfectly sums up what makes this group so special.

That is the attitude all three of them have for each other, for their teammates, for their coaches and for the Traverse City West bowling program.

Lightning has struck in the same spot at the same time with LaFleur, Phillips and Tanner. Sometimes it is just best to sit back and see where that energy goes.

"It's like a self-propelling organism," Coach Phillips said. "If you just had one or two of them, they wouldn't be as good as they are with three because they drive each other."

"They're really, super-close friends with each other, but they're also really competitive with each other because they hate to lose to one another," he continued. "But they'd rather lose to each other than a competitor from another team, and that happens a lot now with them taking each other out at tournaments until one reaches the finals."

The three ultra-talented bowlers are also ultra-competitive, which can make for some rather awkward interactions when they are forced to square off against each other in individual competitions.

"During team events, there's not much competition. But when it comes to individuals, everybody is competition," said LaFleur, who has gone to battle against Phillips more than 100 times over the last seven years but has yet to face Tanner in singles competition.

"The moment we get into singles, it's like everyone for themselves," Tanner said. "But we're still a team. It's very supportive. We want each other to do the very best, but we're all trying to win."

Tanner said those one-on-one matchups aren't something she necessarily enjoys.

"Honestly, I didn't want to go against Taylor when I had to," she said. "It was a weird feeling. You know this is probably one of the best people you can be matched up against. They know your game, and you want them to do their best — but in your head, you're also like, 'I want to do the best.' It's very back and forth, and scores go really high when we play against each other."

When those matches inevitably occur, Phillips has her own approach to keep herself keyed into the task at hand and shut out the outside distractions.

"I still think of them as my teammate and my friend, but sometimes it will get really awkward and quiet," Phillips said. "It gets as if I don't know them anymore. I just try to get myself in my zone. I shut down. I turn on my own radio station. I find a song, and I'm singing it in my head. I'm still cheering them on, giving them high-fives and fist-bumps, and laughing with them. But at the same point, I'm thinking I need to focus on what I'm doing and stay in the moment."

Tanner admitted she actually feels more nervous when she's bowling as part of the Titan team than when it's Titan versus Titan.

"I don't want to let them down. That's why there's more nerves and pressure," Tanner said. "Individually, it's just you. You're only thinking about you and what you're doing. My nerves get a little more intense when it's for the team."

That intensity will no doubt ramp up when the postseason rolls around, but LaFleur said their past experiences have prepared them all for what lies ahead.

"We know how to handle it," LaFleur said. "We don't really let it get to us much. We do feel it. We do feel the nerves, but we don't let them control us."

The chemistry on the team this year will be a big help as well, LaFleur added.

"The vibe we've created is going to give us a lot more," she said. "Having a good vibe is a very big thing on a team. If the vibe is meh, the team is going to be meh. But our vibe is really good."

The good feelings are glaringly apparent when LaFleur, Phillips and Tanner get together and just talk about bowling, even recounting their highest games.

Tanner has a high game of 274. LaFleur's best is a 290 after sparing in the first frame and then throwing 11 straight strikes. Phillips, who is an employee at Incredible Mo's, has gotten the closest to perfection, but she fell just short of the bowling zenith with a certainly impressive but also heartbreaking 299.

"I could see my coworkers huddling around and hiding behind the computer watching me because they don't want to jump-scare me," Phillips said. "I knew they were recording me, and I also had this group of kids here for a birthday party all looking at me. All I was thinking was, 'Why do I feel more pressure here than I do in a tournament?'"

Phillips' final throw after 11 consecutive strikes came up just light in the pocket, leaving the dreaded 5-pin staring her down from 60 feet away.

"Oh, and there was that pin spinning so close to it," LaFleur recalled as she listened to Phillips tell the tale of her 299.

"It gave me the hope," Phillips said.

Hope is certainly the one thing the Titans have in spades this season. Hope for another conference championship. Hope for another regional title. And great hope for claiming state gold together.

"We all want this," LaFleur said. "This is my senior year, my last chance — our last chance — so I've got to crack down and do good."

"Yeah, we try to get tune-ups at tournaments downstate so we're ready and can adjust for regionals and states when the time comes," Phillips added. "We'll be ready."

"We will be," Tanner said, echoing the confidence of her teammates.

The Division 1 regional meet will be at Sherman Bowling Center in Muskegon, Feb. 23-24, with the state championship finals to follow at Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park on March 1-2.

Coach Phillips knows his trio of Titans will be focused, prepared and confident. But he also knows there is more pressure this year than any year before.

"There is only one objective, and it's not to just make it to the finals. It's to bring it home. I want this for the girls more than words can describe," he said with a little catch in his throat. "For them to bring this home, that would be amazing."