When Free State sophomore Matthew Eagle made the decision to get serious about bowling, it wound up being the start of two careers.
Bowling seems like the perfect sport for Eagle, who joined other FSHS bowlers at the state tournament in Wichita during his freshman year. Multiple people mention that his mind works mathematically and that he’s very analytical. The things that go through a bowler’s head — hitting the right mark on the lane, oil patterns and the frequent adjustments — suit him well.
“He likes to do his own thing,” his father, Chris Eagle, said. “He doesn’t like to do what everybody else is doing. He also likes to do things that he can control. Temperature’s always the same, a lot of sameness when you go bowling alley to bowling alley.”
It hasn’t always been so easy for Eagle, who nearly dropped the sport before he really got going.
It all started on a whim when a friend invited Eagle to go bowling during the summer between the fifth and sixth grade. After that first visit to the alley, Eagle decided he liked the sport enough to join a youth league with a couple of his friends. However, as a young player without any ties to the bowling community, he was unable to find instruction that would help him improve.
“He was a stone’s throw away from quitting,” his mother, Susan Eagle, said. “He was frustrated. There was nowhere to go for him to learn.”
That would all change about three months later, when Royal Crest Lanes started the Saturday Morning Youth Bowling League. The league, which begins at 9 a.m. on Saturdays, offers free coaching for an hour beforehand.
Those lessons united Eagle and Cheryl Keslar.
Keslar was a longtime member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association and won multiple Kansas state titles over the years.
“She helps a bunch of kids now, but I was her first kid in her program,” Eagle said. “So that was a huge help to me, and I owe all of my bowling skill to her, really.”
The experience gave Keslar, who is now the head bowling coach at Baker University, the confidence to teach others.
“I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do, not sure if I was good at it, so he was like my guinea pig,” Keslar said. “But we’ve come a long way. ... He always wanted to get better, and he has that drive and mind to always be good.”
While Eagle was making strides over the years with Keslar and in scholarship tournaments — the reward for the top medalists is money that is placed into an account that can only be used for college — he still battled with growth spurts.
The holes drilled into custom bowling balls, which offer a distinct advantage with their off-center weight, often did not fit properly and gave Eagle a bloody hand.
Even this December, right before tryouts, Eagle battled blisters and open wounds on his right hand, the hand he bowls with. This led to more adjustments with his bowling balls, which led to tendinitis in the ring finger on his right hand.
“It was pretty bad,” Eagle said. “I tried to fight through it as much as I could, but it was so painful. I’m finally getting to a point where my hand doesn’t hurt, but for a long time it was a bad struggle.”
While Eagle had a successful freshman season, it ended on a sour note with a disappointing showing at the state tournament when he — and other bowlers from Lawrence — failed to adjust to the unfamiliar lanes. Eagle, one of 11 freshman at state, finished with a three-game series total of 537 and in 60th place out of 72 bowlers.
Looking to improve this summer, Eagle went to a three-day camp — the Master’s Camp at the Westridge Family Fun Center in Topeka — which was led by Keslar, but geared for more advanced bowlers.
“He just came out and said, ‘Wow, I thought I knew a lot about bowling, but I really didn’t know much about bowling,’” Susan Eagle said. “It just proved how much more there is to learn.”
Eagle has already shown improvement this year, leading all bowlers at Wednesday’s three-team De Soto Invitational with a three-game series total of 589.
While there will continue to be much to learn for Eagle, it wouldn’t have started without a bowler and coach taking a chance on each other.