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Missoula’s Steven Hanninen won four of the five events he entered at last month’s youth bowling state tournament. Photo by CHARLES PULLIAM/Missoulian

Steven Hanninen owns a smooth swing and fundamental approach to bowling. His timing and rhythm makes the game look easy.

He might be a bit of show-off when it comes to those birthday bowling parties at local lanes in Missoula, but Hanninen is still set on continuing to improve his already impressive bowling game.

"I want to practice more and more," said the soon-to-be freshman at Missoula Big Sky.

The 14-year-old's parents, Cory and Dawn, established a lot of the early basics, how to walk and swing at the same time, how to develop a four-step approach and how to position the ball.

They recognized when to develop those initial habits, but it's the natural knack for the game that has even Hanninen's folks turning their heads.

"His sense of the game and understanding of the game in the last year, year-and-a-half or so, have completely changed," said Steven's dad Cory, a former state champion. "There is still so much to learn, but he is fundamentally sound and can adapt himself already, throwing harder and slower when needed, and that's just an instinctive part that must just come naturally to him."

For Hanninen the Montana United States Bowling Congress Tournament in Helena in April was a coming out of sorts.

He posted four first-place finishes in his five-event division.

"I felt pretty good, I guess," Hanninen said with a shrug. "I didn't really worry about getting first, I just worried about hitting my mark, following through and just doing my rhythm.

"Afterward, I was amazed. I couldn't believe I won all those, but I still wish I would have done a little better, especially in singles."

Hanninen was first in handicap all events, scratch all events, doubles and the team event. He finished 17th in singles.

"It was just a pleasure to watch, because he got on one of those rolls," Cory said. "He got into a rhythm, his timing was great."

"I had one gal at state, she was standing behind us watching, and she asked, ‘Is that your son bowling?'" Dawn said. "I told her he was and she said, ‘Oh my gosh! He makes it look so easy.' That was one of the best compliments.

"Anyone can go out there and throw a ball and have it look unorthodox, but he goes out there and is fundamental about it. You know, he is pretty good at golf, too. I think he takes after his mom."

Both Cory and Dawn still bowl competitively around Missoula and the state.

The source of the family ties to the sport can be traced back to Cory's grandfather Steve Ryan Hanninen, who managed Star Lanes in Butte and was a state hall-of-fame bowler.

"When I was a kid, that was my place," Cory said of Star Lanes. "(My grandfather) would come and pick me up everyday after school.

"My job was to go clean the ashtrays from all the smokers, take out the trash and stuff like that. Once I was done, I could bowl as many games as I wanted until it was time to go home for dinner."

After their engagement, Dawn received a bowling ball from Cory as a present.

"It's one of those things, if you can't beat 'em, then join 'em," she said.

Dawn just wrapped up a weekend of bowling in Anaconda at the women's state tournament, while Cory is preparing for men's state in Billings later this month.

Hanninen said the family doesn't necessarily compete against each other when they practice, but he did say he managed to beat his dad, once.

"I really want to beat him more," the younger Hanninen said. "I only beat him once - that was my high too, a 246."

Dan Fix, owner of Five Valley Bowling Center in Missoula, said he sees the family several times per week taking up a lane.

"That family has that history of bowling," he said by phone from Reno, Nev., where he was competing in a USBC tournament. "Young Steven, he is one of the few in youth bowling. There are so many other sports out there with other opportunities; they are taking a lot of the young bowlers away from the game."

According to figures released by the USBC, there was at least a 10 percent drop in youth membership figures in 2009.

Overall, there are more than 2.3 million USBC members nationwide, nowhere near the more than nine million sanctioned bowlers from the late 1970s, according to the USBC website.

Fix, who also serves as a director at the Montana Bowling Proprietors Association, said the decline in youth bowling coaches is a key contributor to the dip in overall bowling members.

"Bowling coaches aren't there the way they used to be," the long-time bowling businessman said. "The kids lose interest because no one is there to teach them. That's the truth."

Fix said parents are playing a much more vital role in developing the next generation of bowlers.

"If they have good bowling parents, those kids can excel," he said.

Coaching isn't exactly what Cory had in mind when it comes to bowling, but he has developed a knack for giving tips to Hanninen and his friends.

"I love that part," he said. "I love sitting down with his buddies and giving them little pointers to help them out."

In June, Hanninen and his parents are headed to Orlando, but not to visit Disney World, even though it might fit into the agenda somewhere.

The Hanninen family will visit the Kegel Bowling Training Center just south of Orlando in Lake Wales, Fla.

"We're all going to take a lesson there," Cory said. "We'll go down there and learn some tips from a gold-level coach for a change."

The 12-lane bowling center is custom built "for serious bowlers to train to be the best," according to the Kegel website.

Hanninen said he is nervous about the next step in his bowling career - competing against high-school level competition - but he is prepared to get better.

"I feel the pressure now, but I just want to get better," he said.

"Right now, we are just fine tuning," Dawn said. "We are going to let him tell us what he wants to do. If he wants to bowl more, boy, we're going to help him get out there."


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