Bowled over

In the last decade, Northeast High School bowling coach Karen Barrett has won seven Public League championships, including four straight.

  • All smiles: Part of Barrett’s success over the years is the deep bonds she forms with her bowlers, taking an interest in all of their lives on and off the lanes.

  • Bowling with Karen: Northeast High School bowling coach Karen Barrett (third from left) shows off the 2014 Public League championship trophy with members of her team. Barrett has won seven league titles since 2005, including the last four. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTOS

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.” ••

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