ANGOLA — When Jaden Howard approaches the lane, bowling ball in hand, she tries not to breathe. She tries not to think about breathing. She wants her body to perform a series of complex movements that her muscles themselves have memorized. In short, she wants to become a robot.
Howard, an 18-year old Angola High School senior, standing roughly 5-foot-6 with a slender, narrow build, pulls the ball into her chest and pauses a minute, staring down the lane toward a set of pins as if they were her prey. She swings the ball first backward, then forward — her arm a pendulum of kinetic energy — as she takes a series of calculated steps toward the foul line. She releases the ball, and it glides across the oiled wooden planks like it’s floating, hydroplaning, spinning along a trajectory that seems to be heading for the gutter. But as the ball nears the edge of the lane, it veers back toward the center, as if guided by a remote control. The hook carries the ball back just in time. She performs this routine again, and what was once a sneering mouth of pins is now — nothing.
“I was practicing my spares,” Howard said, “because that’s how you win games.”
This season, Howard has done little else when she steps into the lane. Already cemented as one of the top bowlers in the area, she qualified for this weekend’s state finals at Championship Lanes in Anderson after an impressive postseason run that included scores of 560 in the sectional meet, 571 in regional and 544 at semi-state.
By now, Howard is a grizzled veteran, having bowled in more Indiana High School Bowling state tournament meets than she has fingers to count. She has been on the biggest and brightest of stages, too, making the state finals as a junior a year ago, placing seventh among a talented field. She believes a much better finish is in the cards this year — her final donning the Hornets’ purple and gold. She even believes she could win it all. Except, this last state run — one for the ages, she hopes — is about much more than the place she ends up occupying on the podium.
If any sport could qualify as a genetic trait, it would be bowling.
As a child, Howard was guided toward sports. Her family is active and believed strongly in passing that on to the next generation.
“Our family was just, ‘you gotta play sports, you gotta go out and do stuff,’” Howard said. “I played just about every sport.”
More than any other, though, bowling is a sport that seemingly gets handed down through generations almost as naturally as DNA itself. Howard’s father, Joel, has been an avid partaker of the lanes since his early 20s, so, naturally, bowling stuck. The two Howards have crafted a bond through the lanes. Joel has served as his daughter’s coach since she was young, and has watched her grow through the years, the two joined at the hip throughout the process.
This last run, though, marks the end of it all. Joel acknowledged he will more than likely step away from coaching when his daughter graduates. He knows the end is near, he’s seen it coming for a while now – the conclusion of an era, crafted by him and his daughter.
“It’s been me and her, since she started as a young girl,” Joel Howard said. “It’s awesome seeing her accomplish all of this, but at the same time it’s hard because it really is the end of an era. She’s put in all the work to get here.”
That work consists of no fewer than six practices per week, Monday through Saturday, with Sundays off for good measure. One of her biggest areas of focus is timing.
Timing is everything. When your timing is right, when your arms, legs and torso all move in rhythm toward the lane, you have better balance. When you are balanced, you are also more accurate. And when you are accurate, your decision-making improves. By contrast, if your timing is off, your balance is off, and you don’t hit your targets as well. There are too many variables to assess, too many elements to gauge.
Bowling, similar to a free throw, is about erasing all thoughts and having each body part function as programmed.
Howard’s final practice leading into today’s state meet came Thursday evening. Though she was all smiles, the importance of the moment was tangible. Her work ethic is a large part of why she is one of just 20 girls left standing in the state of Indiana out of thousands which compete in high school matches each year. It’s why she is the only individual (boy or girl) left standing from the Northeast Conference — though teams from DeKalb and Eastside will also represent the area in Anderson.
Howard has had good luck with spares in the past, and she was focusing on them again. Spares are what, according to her, got her to this point in the first place.
“I bowled pretty well (at semi-state last week), but it wasn’t my strongest game either,” she said. “Hitting my spares is what got me through.”
In her final high school meet, this will again be key.
Joel and Jaden Howard each believe she has a shot at winning it all.
“She’s the top of the pin,” Joel said. “The hard part is getting here, giving yourself a chance. But she has all the ability in the world.”
There is almost never a time when every decision you make is correct and every step is in the right direction. Bowling, like life, is full of complicated factors, unpredictable variables and plenty of times when there is no right answer.
Much of what will take place in the lanes today will be out of her control. Jaden knows this. Joel preaches it — take care of what you can control, let others make the mistakes, and the rest will sort itself out. “I just can’t think about it,” Jaden said. “I just need to let my body and the ball do all the work.”
No matter the outcome, everyone will know these Howards are serious business.
“People are gonna know that when they see the Angola Hornet purple and gold, they are gonna have to beat us,” Joel said. “We are not someone who is going to roll over for you. It’s an awesome feeling knowing every time you walk through the bowling alley doors people say ‘Oh boy, here comes Angola.”
Of course, they’d still like to win.