During the winter sports season at Northeast High School, one isn’t likely to find one of the school’s most winningest coaches anywhere on campus.
No, Karen Barrett won’t be discovered in an office, nor will she be running a practice in one of Northeast’s indoor gymnasiums or outdoor athletic fields. Instead, odds are you’d find Barrett piling her Vikings’ bowling team into her vehicle like an undersized clown car and heading down to Erie Lanes for their own version of practice.
While bowling may not be the most publicized competitive sport in Philadelphia, that hasn’t mattered to Barrett and company. After all, winning talks, and that’s exactly what Barrett has done, capturing seven of the last 10 Public League bowling championships dating to 2005, including a come-from-behind title win over Central on March 5.
However, it’s not the titles that make Barrett truly special. That would be the way she takes a group of mostly bowling hobbyists and turns them into champions, all while applying lessons for her players that can be utilized at the bowling alley, as well as in real life. And even though she has helped her players reach new athletic heights, it’s Barrett who is often touched by how far they come in a given year.
“The first word is that I’m just blessed to be able to work with these students,” said Barrett, also the school’s badminton coach. “We have fun. We push them all into my car and we head to the alley. We talk about bowling, but we also talk about their lives, what’s going on in school. As the season goes on, we like to build on their game, yes, but also their character in terms of how they carry themselves.”
In the title bout against Central, the Vikings dropped the first game, 993-895 (total composite pins), which, in bowling, is a substantial deficit, according to Barrett. With her boys on the ropes early on, the always-encouraging Barrett gathered her team and calmed them down, imploring them not to give up until they were out of it.
A plethora of strikes opened the second game, and the Vikings had found a rhythm. They completely overwhelmed Central, crossing the 1,000-pin mark for the first time this season, winning game two 1,059-942 before closing the Lancers out in the final contest. It was Barrett’s fourth consecutive title (she’s won in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011-14), and, per usual, she made quite the impact on her boys.
“She really is our ‘Black Mama,’ ” said senior Christian Trinidad, who bowled a 186 and 201 against Central. “She is a real strong woman, always pushing us to do our best to succeed. It’s not an accident that we have her in our lives. We’re real privileged to be able to have her teach us.”
Added senior Shawn Walsh, who bowled a 189 and 182 (up nearly 40-50 pins from his early-season average) against the Lancers: “She treats us like we’re her own kids. Her spirit, the theme of never giving up, that goes along with our whole season. She never told us we were blowing it if we were down, just to pick our heads up, keep going forward and that we could do this. I took that personally and applied it to my life. Whenever I feel down, I see her face telling me not to give up and to go get it.”
For her part, Barrett says there’s no real secret to her success. A God-fearing woman, she relies on faith first and foremost. When constructing her team (Barrett says she usually gets one or two players with experience, but many have little to none), she first asks interested players to go bowl a few games on their own and bring back some scores to show her. From there, once she’s convinced the commitment to the sport is genuine, Barrett takes each individual and works on his specific game.
“These boys feed into the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of how I want my teams to carry themselves,” she said. “They feed into it because of my energy and love of the sport, but also because of my concern for them. I try to teach them things they can carry not just in bowling so that they can be champions, but also to take some of these facets and use them in their lives.
“I told them Central was going to come at them like gangbusters, to knock them around; in life, there’s a lot of bumps, people pulling at you and trying to take you off course. But I told them if they stayed focused and kept the faith in themselves, then nobody could take away what they were trying to achieve.”
As much as Barrett loves all the trophies she’s collected as the school’s bowling coach, her most valuable keepsake is the looks on her boys’ faces the moment they realize that they just won a championship. Many high school students play sports, but not all of them get to hoist the ultimate prize, or don jackets with their achievement embroidered on them for everyone to see.
Barrett’s players want to win so badly for her that during the season, they’d often trek over the bridge to New Jersey on school nights to practice bowling as late as 2 a.m., mainly because an alley over there had the most reasonable rates.
“Being known as a champion, that’s the best part,” Walsh said. “The bowling is fun, but we can always go bowling. But being called a team and representing Northeast, knowing Ms. Barrett has a whole history behind her, we wanted to help carry that. I know she wanted it, maybe even more than we did, and it felt good to continue that for our coach.”
“You come here and hear that bowling is a prestigious sport,” said senior Raymond Wu. “People on the outside might not think it’s serious, but it’s real competition. She improved us as bowlers and built our bond, telling us to have fun and do our best, and not forget the bond that brought us all together. Whatever happens, happens. She taught me how to be a humble person.”
Of course, Barrett will remember this team (other members are juniors Tyler Tran, Brandon Cella and Ilya Zviaguin and senior Tyler Semola) fondly. How could she not? The way they rallied around each other was second to none; in a winter with so much snow, Barrett never had a problem wrangling up her boys on a day off from school to get in some extra work on the lanes.
Clearly, it paid off.
“They are fine young men, very respectful, very committed and they listen to you,” she said. “We came together like a puzzle. You know the movie The Terminator? Well they were the ‘Determinators.’ They started out with low total scores, but they were determined from the beginning to get better.
“Because of that, I know they’ll do well in life in whatever they decide to do, whatever path they decide to take. They have faith in themselves and they know how to pick their friends. That, above all else, makes them a great group to remember.” ••