VAN HORNE — You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.
Author and motivational speaker Zig Zaglar once uttered those words and now Erin Janss is living it as he tries to get the Benton Community bowling program off the ground amid a pandemic.
“I’ve always been a bowler,” said Janss, a teacher at Benton who taught fifth and sixth grade for 28 years before retiring two years ago. “I’ve always thought there were a lot of kids that aren’t out for winter sports that don’t have a lot to do, so I thought we should give it a shot.”
Not only is Janss arguably the most qualified person from the community for the job as a “lifelong bowler,” it goes much deeper than that.
“It means a lot to me just because I grew up in the area,” Janss said. “My whole life I’ve been a Benton Bobcat.”
Janss grew up in the Keystone area where his father, Melvin “Slim” Janss, owned and operated the local lanes for 36 years.
“He was open seven days a week and I’ve had lots of people say they appreciated the time he spent with them, helping kids.” Janss said. “He always had leagues going and they were always full. After he passed away, the bowling fell off.”
After a fire destroyed the original Turner Hall alley, a six-lane replacement was eventually built and named “Slim Janss Lanes” in honor of the Keystone community leader.
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Now, after a year as a club sport, Slim’s son and the Bobcats are ready to attempt their first season as a sanctioned team.
“Last year was kind of challenging because we couldn’t compete against anybody because of sanctioning rules,” Janss said. “We’re supposed to start in December, but we just went back to virtual as a school and the rules are that if you are virtual, you can’t participate.”
The good news for Janss and the Bobcats is most area teams are in a similar situation, leaving the coach thankful for what he doesn’t need to worry about.
“We’ve already missed 4-5 practices, but I don’t have to worry about an offense or a defense,” Janss said. “I don’t know how the basketball guys are doing it.”
Assuming competition resumes at some point, Janss is focused on the basics. That is why he scheduled 11 of the Bobcats’ 12 matches on the road.
“They’re going to be learning everything this first year anyway,” Janss said. “They need to learn proper protocol and basic lane etiquette such as who goes first and that type of stuff.”
With the focus on learning over winning, Janss was able to schedule schools with bigger home alleys, which allows for a full boys/girls, varsity/junior varsity match since the six lanes in Keystone aren’t large enough to host such an event.
The team itself consists of eight girls, including two seniors, and 14 boys.
“We can’t use big numbers,” Janss said. “A lot of schools want 20-30-40 kids out, but if we had those kinds of numbers we’d never be able to use the alleys because we only have six lanes.”
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That doesn’t mean Benton won’t build into a bigger team some day. Janss just wants to do it the right way.
“We need to start building a youth program,” Janss said. “I can’t bring in freshmen every year and have that work. We need to start them younger. We just need to get people motivated to participate. You don’t have to have a lot of money or be a great athlete. We’ve got a good start, hopefully kids will buy into it and we’ll go from there.”
If matches are allowed to be played, Janss believes he will have to limit the kids to one spectator per bowler, the opposite of what he wants the program to eventually become.
“Could you imagine if we could have 30-40 students come and support the team and cheer them on?” Janss said. “We’re going to miss that this year, but hopefully after COVID-19 is done it can change to that for next year.”