Shhh! Don't tell anybody, but Kansas University has a bowling team.
It's not really a secret. But sometimes even KU bowlers have trouble convincing classmates.
"When I was a freshman, I was talking to some people," recalled Crystal Phillips, an Emporia sophomore on KU's women's team. "I told them I was a bowler, and most of them just laughed at me. They didn't believe me."
Brian Schmidtberger, a Topeka freshman on KU's men's team, has had the same problem.
"Their first reaction is, 'KU has a bowling team?'" Schmidtberger said. "They don't even know KU has a bowling team."
But even after persuading friends, the battle is only half won.
"Most people just think it's something to do on Saturday night with friends," Phillips said.
"They automatically assume we're not very good and we're not very competitive," Schmidtberger added. "They assume we just throw a few balls and drink a few beers, which is not really it at all."
Not at all. The Jayhawks bowl in the six-team Great Plains Intercollegiate Bowling Conference (GPIBC), which consists of KU, Wichita State, Emporia State, Nebraska, Nebraska-Omaha and Central Missouri State.
And you may not have realized it, but the Midwest is a hotbed of collegiate bowling. The GPIBC's success in bowling is comparable to the Big Eight's conquests in football.
Kansas won the national men's bowling championship in 1962.
Wichita State won both the men's and women's national titles last year, and Nebraska was runner-up in both the men's and women's divisions.
"That makes it kind of tough," said KU bowling coach Mike Fine. "There are a lot of good bowlers coming out of junior programs in Kansas, and a lot of them want to go to Wichita because they're national champions.
"What I have to do is make sure they understand that bowling is no different from most any other sport," Fine said. "There are very few people with the talent to go on past the college level to make a living on the pro tour."
One former Jayhawk, however, is among the elite on the pro bowlers tour. Bryan Goebel, a KU bowler in 1982, has won well over $100,000 this year.
"He was just here for a year," Fine said. "The interesting thing was, Bryan was never good enough to go on any tournaments. Bryan was on the team and he never went on any tournaments, which is kind of humorous now."
Fine is recreation coordinator for the Kansas Union.
"Along with that comes the bowling team," said Fine, who has been KU's bowling coach since 1984. "The bowling team is a program sponsored by the Jaybowl and the Kansas Union."
Bowling is not an NCAA sport, although approximately 250 schools compete in intercollegiate bowling. Their national governing board is the Young American Bowling Alliance, which has a collegiate division.
And it's an activity that requires eligibility.
"The minimum eligibility requirements are actually more stringent than NCAA guidelines," Fine said. "We don't have Prop 48 (for freshman eligibility), but we have a higher grade-point-average requirement, minimum number of hours passed and academic progress."
Six Big Eight schools compete regularly in bowling: Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. In addition, Kansas State forms a team that bowls in regional tournaments.
KU's bowling season lasts from early October through at least mid-March -- and into April if the Jayhawks qualify for a national tournament.
This season, the 16-team national championships will be held April 19-23 in Knoxville, Tenn. The ACU-I Team Nationals -- roughly comparable to the NIT in college basketball -- will be April 21-22 in Omaha, Neb.
KU's men's team placed fifth in the ACU-I Team Nationals last season.
"We had a real good men's team last year," Fine said. "Our men's team had the seventh-high three-game series in the nation."
This year, Fine said he expected the women's team to be improved. Phillips is the leading returner, and Robin Fredenburgh, a freshman from Burnt Hills, N.Y., is one of the top newcomers.
Among the top men's bowlers are junior Mark Eramo (North Grafton, Mass.) and Andre Trudell (Easton, Pa.).
KU's men's team consists of 13 bowlers, and the women's team has five. Schools compete with teams of five men and five women, and men's and women's competition is held separately.
"I'd like to think that bowling is the reason why some of these people look at KU," Fine said. "But I try very hard to make sure they understand they have to be here because this is a great place to go to school. That's got to be the first thing."
That was the first thing for both Phillips and Schmidtberger, who said they would have attended KU even if they weren't bowling. Currently, no scholarships are offered for bowling.
But like other sports, practice, practice, practice is a necessity.
"Last year, I was in here every single day," said Phillips, who has a 173 average.
The Jayhawks frequently work on their own time rather than in a team setting.
"I try to get out five times a week," said Schmidtberger, who carried a 196 average in a league last year. "You work on your mechanics, getting your timing down, and on your spare shooting.
"You can improve a great amount," Schmidtberger said. "People who go out for the team can improve their games 30 to 40 pins. Let's put it this way, I've been bowling all my life, and I still don't consider myself a good bowler."
Although KU bowling may not be highly publicized, it's apparently not unknown among potential college bowlers.
"I get inquiries from all over the country," Fine said, "from people that are looking for a college that offers a specific area of study and might also happen to have a bowling team that might be good. It's just like any other sport. We get a lot of people to come out. The trick is getting the really good people to come here."