Wheat Ridge hosts one of state’s biggest bowling leagues

40 teams take to the lanes on Tuesday nights

Matthew Van Deventer
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 12/31/18

Rocco Panetta was sitting at the table behind lane one of Bowlero Wheat Ridge bowling alley. In between checking the score screen and eyeing the lanes, fellow bowlers are constantly approaching …

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Wheat Ridge hosts one of state’s biggest bowling leagues

40 teams take to the lanes on Tuesday nights

Posted

Rocco Panetta was sitting at the table behind lane one of Bowlero Wheat Ridge bowling alley. In between checking the score screen and eyeing the lanes, fellow bowlers are constantly approaching Panetta, stopping by for a quick chat, shoving cash in his hands, or dropping off envelopes with their team’s updated scores and dues. He handles all the commotion with a gentle smile and fluidity. After all, it is bowing night.

Panetta secretaries Pioneer 1, one of the largest men’s bowling leagues in the state, and as of this year the oldest since the Homebuilders league dissolved because it was unable to get enough teams.

It’s made up of about 200 bowlers, many of whom find respite from their lives in bowling. Every Tuesday night between August and April the 40 teams of five that make up the league takes over all 40 lanes Bowlero Wheat Ridge, located on 50th and I-70 behind the Natural Grocers, has to offer.

Players start showing up around 5 p.m., rolling in with their bags, full of equipment. The bar gets busy selling cocktails and beer towers as servers run food to the lanes. After an hour and a half, bowlers start a 15-minute warm-up and then bowl three games, some playing cards in between their turns.

Every Tuesday, each team has the opportunity to score 40 points. As required by the league, they must have a sponsor, usually a business, whose logo is displayed on the bowlers’ jerseys. After the 36-week season, the winningest team gets the league-voted and approved first place prize of $15,000, one of the largest pots in the state.

“It’s a handicapped men’s league with a big prize fund,” explained Panetta. Each league has their own way of calculating handicapped scores, but generally, they are a way of leveling the playing field and even encouraging participation. Only a few leagues in the state don’t play with handicaps.

When asked why players come out Tuesday nights, Panetta laughed, “Honestly, I don’t know ... trying to win the pot, I guess.”

He notices a lot of frustration and even complaints about the lanes from the players. Then he admits, “ I would say camaraderie. Friends. A lot of guys are friends.” Panetta first started bowling as a kid in 1998 when his father needed someone to fill in on his team. They still bowl on the same team, which is sponsored by his father’s business, Panetta Heating and AC. Panetta has been on the Pioneer 1 league for 12 years, started as secretary six years ago, bowls in four leagues and secretaries two others.

As secretary, he’s responsible for collecting dues, $25 per bowler per game, inputting each player’s score and handicap, which are written down on the envelopes he’s receiving. And he takes cash for side pots like the high game or clean pot, which happens when someone gets a strike or spare in all 30 frames. All in all, Panetta puts in about 4 hours of work a week for Pioneer 1 duties alone, in addition to his full-time job as a bookkeeper and actually bowling.

“It’s the one night you get out and have fun,” said Larry May about Tuesday nights in between bowls.

May is the league’s Sergeant of Arms and is the second most tenured player having joined in 1990. As Sergeant of Arms, he’s responsible for mediating any conflicts between players as well as collecting a $5 fine from bowlers that goes towards the cash prize if they forget to wear their jersey.

He and his team, Matrix Autobody has won the prize a few times over the years. “There are some stud bowlers in this league,” he continued. May grew up in bowling alleys when his father played and now his three sons play Tuesday nights too with one on his team.

“It’s just fun. The relationship with the guys,” said Joe Stepniak, who’s been bowling the league since 1974, a few years after it was formed. Stepniak’s seen a lot of changes in bowling over the years, mostly in the way of equipment. For example, the lanes used to be wood, now they’re a synthetic material and how they oil the lanes is different.

Pioneer 1 had been playing at another alley until its new owners wanted to change up the structure of the league, explained May. Instead, they negotiated a deal with Bowlero four years ago, then Brunswick, and moved the league there. By then the league had grown from six teams to 26 and then to what it is today.

“We were in trouble. Rocco built them up over the last four years from six teams to 26 then 40 at Bowlero,” said May before rushing off for his bowl.

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