by Fred Eisenhammer
WINNETKA – “I will have the crowd behind me and that will help a lot.”
So said Robin Romeo in a television interview before competing in the $30,000 Canoga Park Classic stepladder finals on Feb. 8, 1989, at Canoga Park Bowl (later to be called Winnetka Bowl).
Romeo was then a Van Nuys resident and had qualified third among the six women who had reached the stepladder finals. She was repeatedly referred to as the “hometown favorite” during SportsChannel America’s broadcast of the year’s first Ladies Professional Bowlers Tour event.
This four-day professional women’s tournament, which was cited last month in the California Bowling News, was memorable for many reasons.
First, it’s a rare event when the San Fernando Valley serves as the site of a pro bowling tournament. This is how special the tournament was: In preparation for the event, Canoga Park Bowl underwent a $500,000 face lift. The bowling house also paid the LPBT $10,000 to host the event.
Second, the event was marked by a severe snowstorm that provided an obstacle to bowlers coming down to the Valley from the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys. Santa Clarita Valley was hit so hard that one spokesman said the area was “basically sealed off” from the three to five inches of snow. Other Los Angeles-area communities, such as Westlake Village, Porter Ranch, Calabasas, Simi Valley and Tarzana, also were hit with up to five inches of snow before it started to melt.
Third, the tournament of 69 entrants lived up to its billing as a classic with Romeo prevailing against stiff competition in dramatic fashion to collect the $5,000 first-place prize.
Here’s how the tournament went:
Match 1 of the stepladder finals: Sixth-seeded Michelle Mullen vs. fifth-seeded Lorrie Nichols. Mullen was a former collegiate bowler of the year but had zero career titles. Nichols, in her 18th year on the tour, had won 13 titles. Mullen stayed close to Nichols, rolling a five-bagger starting with the third frame. But Nichols opened with four strikes and struck out in the 10th to finish with a 247. Mullen needed a triple in the 10th to win, but misfired on her first shot and finished with a 226, losing by 21 pins.
Match 2: Nichols vs. fourth-seeded Lisa Wagner. It was another high-scoring affair with Wagner putting together a late five-bagger to finish with a 245. Nichols needed two strikes in the 10th frame to edge Wagner, who had won 21 titles, six in 1988. Nichols struck on her first shot but left a solid 10 on her next shot and finished with a 244 – a one-pin loss.
Match 3: Wagner vs. third-seeded Robin Romeo. Romeo, who was recovering from a separated shoulder, didn’t show any ill effects from the injury and was hot from start to finish. Romeo, in her 11th year on the tour and who had won seven titles, strung together seven strikes and finished with a powerful 268. Wagner failed to mark in the third frame and never got an opening from Romeo and finished with a 207.
Match 4: Romeo vs. second-seeded Paula Drake. This was a nail-bitter. Romeo bowled well on her home lanes but so did Drake, who was renowned for her accuracy. Romeo, however, asserted herself with a turkey in the seventh-toninth frames while Drake spared each frame. Still, Drake nailed two strikes in the 10th frame, forcing Romeo to mark in the 10th. Romeo left the 10 pin on her first shot and easily converted the spare to score a 237-233 victory.
Match 5 (championship match): Romeo vs. top-seeded Rene Fleming. Both bowlers opened in a groove, each notching strikes on their first four shots. Fleming, with career earnings of more than $61,000 and known for her power and speed, battled Romeo until the end. Fleming trailed by seven pins entering the 10th frame. She collected a strike and spare in the final frame to finish with a 229. The broadcasters announced that Romeo needed just a mark in the 10th to win the match and the title. On her first shot, she left the 2-5. On her spare attempt, Romeo grabbed her head after releasing the ball, fearing she would chop the 2 and leave the 5. But both pins fell. Then on her last shot, she knocked down only six pins and in a finish that stunned seemingly everyone, ended with a 229 – the same score as Fleming. Romeo later said that she knew she needed seven pins to win (although the broadcasters had already given her the trophy) and she was just trying to avoid leaving the four-pin bucket.
Her shot finished short of the pocket, though. “I just couldn’t believe I did that,” Romeo said.
The tie score lifted the two bowlers into a two-frame roll-off with the championship at stake. Romeo started the extra session with a strike and Fleming followed with a strike of her own. Fleming’s second shot left a four-pin washout and she knocked down only two pins on her spare attempt to finish with a 26 for the two frames. Romeo needed nine pins on her final frame to win the match and she picked up exactly that with a Brooklyn shot. She converted the spare and won the climactic overtime session, 39-26.
Romeo was in a celebratory mood afterwards. In her post-victory interview, Romeo, who was cheered on during the tournament by sister Tori, raised her fist, looked out at the crowd and exclaimed: “I just want to thank everyone. This one is for you!”
Note: The Canoga Park Classic’s stepladder finals can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube