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The forgotten ones: The story of the 1981 ASU bowling team

Despite being one of the top collegiate bowling programs in the early '80s, the 1981 Sun Devil bowling teams go without recognition in ASU's trophy cases


The ASU men's bowling team pose for a team photo on an unknown date at an unknown location. ASU men's bowling had a dominant run in the 80s, making Nationals three times in four years.

Throughout the 136-year life of ASU, the University has seen many dominant sports teams — the Frank Kush era in football, the nine-year run when women's golf won the NCAA championship six times, to name just a couple. 

However, one of ASU's most prolific teams goes without the glory other teams with similar feats might. You won't find any of its jerseys in the rafters. The trophy case lacks representation.

ASU bowling is a club team, not a varsity team. It can't give out scholarships. But 40 years ago, ASU sported the two best collegiate bowling teams in the country. The 1981 men’s and women’s teams both won the National Championship, and it was the first program to have both men’s and women’s teams win the championship in the same year.

The coaches

Terry Nenaber started working at the MU in 1968 and was the women's bowling team coach. Tony Maresca coached the men's bowling team from 1977-85. Both helped out and coached both teams together. They set up the tournaments, recruited and gathered funding for the club. The team practiced at the Memorial Union on campus before it became a student center.

"Terry was more of the gregarious coach, always encouraging," said Gary Blatchford, who was on the National Championship team. "Tony would see something that you weren't doing correctly and would get in there a little bit." 

Maresca wasn't new to ASU or the bowling team. He had played while in college and returned to the University after a few years on the professional circuit. He was hired as an assistant director at the MU and stayed at the position for five and a half years, before moving up into the director role under Nenaber.

"It was my job to form bowling leagues and to pretty much take over the bowling program," Maresca said. "Once I took the job, I realized just how little time (Nenaber) had because it was a lot of responsibility."

Since it was a club and not an NCAA sport, the planning came down to Nenaber and Maresca. Another major challenge the duo faced was publicity.

"We did get recognition in The State Press," Maresca said. "But we didn't get the recognition that the other sports on campus were getting, even after winning the National Championship."

The students supported the lanes, and the student body knew of the team through the MU. The team's success led to monetary success for the program and the MU. While this made the jobs easier for the coaches, the issue of funding and raising money for the tournaments was always an obstacle, according to Maresca.

"The MU was able to offer jobs, and we showed students how they could work to get in-state tuition," Maresca said.

Success in the lanes helped gather recruits. Nenaber and Maresca couldn't give out scholarships like many of the other bowling teams they faced, so the two had to rely on recruiting within the ASU community. As the program began to grow, finding talent became easier.

"We had 70-80 men try out every year and 25-35 girls try out," Maresca said. "We always cut to the top 16 bowlers and worked with them for the year. We had people who graduated from the program, then we had partners in the program. That is how we were able to stay successful."

The team

Jay Miller bowled throughout his time at ASU, but it wasn't until his final year of his undergraduate program that he made the traveling bowling team. That year, he wasn't just on the team — he led it. Miller won ASU bowler of the year and got to ride off into the sunset in his final year, 1978.

Miller began a career as a software engineer on F-16 flight simulations after finishing his undergrad with ASU. But his story with ASU bowling didn't end there.

"I found out that I still had three years of eligibility left and could bowl as a grad student," Miller said. "So while working full time, I went to grad school in the evening to earn an MBA and was able to keep competing on the team until my final year when we won the National Championship (in 1981)."

The 1978 team wasn't able to finish as the other teams did, but a foundation was set. The next year, the team truly began to take off.

As the Christopher Reeve "Superman" movie swept the box office in '79, ASU bowling swept the bowling lanes, crushing the national tournaments. The team was a major improvement from the previous year's team, and one reason was the ascension of one of the most important people to the ‘81 chip, Gary Blatchford.

1979 was not Blatchford’s first year with the team, and it was not his first year bowling competitively. But it was the year where it all clicked.

Led by Blatchford, ASU swarmed to the top of the national rankings. The anchor was in place, and 1979 was the first year that the team felt that it could do something special.

The team had many top-level individual players, but what made the team stand out was the synergy of the group.

"It was truly a team effort," Nenaber said. "The way the tournaments were structured, somebody couldn't stand out to dominate. Everybody just did whatever needed to be done."

Not only was this team good, but it had the support of the students. The bowling lanes and the recreation center at the MU were places to be on campus.

"There was a decent amount of student support, watching us play and practice at the rec center," Matt Brockert, who bowled on the '81 team, said. "(Quarterback) Mark Malone would come down, (and) (guard) Byron Scott, who played for the Lakers. It was neat to see all these guys that are playing on the actual football team and basketball team come down and be involved in Memorial Union."

ASU was ranked as the No. 1 team in the country in 1979 but eventually fell short in the championship game. The experience gained by the team set the team up for future success.

"In 1979, we went to the Sectionals Tournament," Warren Eales, who was on the team through 1982, said. "I don't know that we were considered one of the favorites, but we ended up winning that and we won rather convincingly over some highly rated programs. That was the beginning of a several-year run for the program where we were really at the pinnacle of collegiate bowling every year."

The next year was something of a down year. The core team was still there, but there was no No.1 ranking and no national championship appearance for the Sun Devils.

"It was a disappointment after doing so well in '79," Miller said. "I think we felt that we could continue, but we still had a good team. We just fell short, and yes, that was a disappointment, but we can see bright spots."

ASU still sported a competitive bowling team, the group finishing second in that year's sectionals tournament. But it taught the team a valuable lesson that helped it on its journey to the championship.

The golden year

The year it all came together had similar rosters to the previous years. What made the difference was the team knew itself and what needed to be done; all the players said it was one solid unit.

"We bowled collegiate tournaments together, but we also bowled the Phoenix area in leagues together," Eales said. "We really were a close-knit group and maybe at the time we weren't the strongest team on paper, but as far as the team goes, we came into our own that year."

As the season went by, the team performed as it had two years prior. The unit was anchored by Blatchford, Eales and Brockert, and the three were at the top of their games. Miller was in his final year with the program and was just as consistent as ever.

"We had a fairly experienced team," Maresca said. "We had a couple new kids that propelled the team, and because of how many bowlers we kept on the team it was very competitive throughout the year."

Many of the players' best memories came during the in-season tournaments. From Fresno, California, to Durham, North Carolina, to Cincinnati, Ohio, the revenge tour was filled with memorable moments of "the golden years," as just about every player put it. One match in particular was beating Washington State, which was about as close to being a rivalry as possible, according to Brockert.

After ASU removed the bowling alleys, the evidence of the national title stays with coach Tony Maresca. 

Of course, nothing compares to the final tournament.

After another strong showing at sectionals, ASU for the second time in three years was in the last dance.

12 teams came to Nationals in St. Louis, but only two made it to the National Championship Game, which was broadcast on ESPN. Despite having the better team in '81 than in '79, the team wasn't ranked very high going into the tournament.

"I didn't bowl well at the beginning of the tournament, but then I found another level, and some of our other players found another level as well," Blatchford said. "Our mantra was 'just get into sixth.' We got there, and then it was 'get into third.'"

Fighting and clawing, the men's team had made it into the semifinals. The Sun Devils blew out Hillsborough Community College in the penultimate game, 222-158.

The Championship Game finished in a similar fashion. ASU won with a comfortable lead over West Texas State with a score of 235-196. 

"We cruised in the (semifinal) game, and then we cruised in the title match," Blatchford said. "The hardest part was digging ourselves out of the hole we put ourselves in."

On the women's side, the team was even more dominant over the years than the men's team.

"There was a point where the women's team went two years (starting in 1981) without losing a match," Nenaber said.

The women also cruised to a National Championship in St. Louis. ASU women's bowling won the semifinal over Indiana State, 184-182. The team won against one of the best bowling programs in the country in Penn State in the Championship Game, 181-167.

Winning the championship was a special moment for everyone. It was a culmination of years of hard work and time. What made it even more special was beating the teams ASU did. West Texas State and Penn State were big programs. They had the ability to recruit. They were Goliath, and David prevailed once again.

The camaraderie from the wins radiated through both the men's and women's programs. They all practiced and spent time together at the MU, so both teams cherished each other's wins as much as their own. It was also the first time a men's and women's team had won the National Championship in the same year.

"When you win as a team, you multiply that feeling by all the players and everybody else on the team," Eales said. "Then when both teams win, just the excitement and the joy of sharing that with all of the teams, both the men's and women's team, the coaches and all the friends and family, is much more gratifying."

Where are they now?

If you walk around ASU’s campus, you will not see anything about the 1981 bowling team. You won’t even find the lanes it graced. The MU was recently renovated, and that process took down the lanes that had become such a huge part of these people's lives.

The team knew what it did. For the players, every single person interviewed affirmed that those were the glory days, that bowling was the most fun part of their college days. The only thing that lacked was the true institutional support of ASU.

"I wish there had been more within the University itself," Nenaber said. "They were very dedicated, they work hard. I wish they had gotten the support."

"Sometimes, the level of motivation and dedication sometimes isn't the same," Eales said. "At that time, everybody was very motivated and goal-oriented and wanting to get better."

The program continued to go through sectionals but never was able to repeat the success of '81.

The anchor moved on and continued his bowling career. Blatchford is now in the Metro Phoenix USBC Hall of Fame. He retired in '92 due to injury.

Miller and Brockert both live in the Valley and keep up with the current ASU bowling team. Neither bowls competitively, but both still play.

Eales graduated in 1983 and still bowls competitively. Even in his sixties, Eales has earned several wins, including a win over Hall of Fame bowler Walter Ray Williams Jr. in 2018.

Nobody on the women's team was able to be reached for this story.

As for the coaches, both are still in Arizona. Nenaber stayed with the team longer than Maresca. The two are still friends to this day.

Maresca became well known within the bowling community and even took a sabbatical to work for the United States Sports Academy two summers to teach bowling in the Middle East. He later opened up two bowling supply shops in the Valley and ran the business until he retired. 

In his house lives the physical evidence of the national championships. It used to be hung in the MU, at the bowling alley, but as the building underwent renovations that got rid of the lanes, the banners left too. All that remains of a dominant bowling team are the players and their voices.

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