The Donovan Catholic bowling team has gone from the brink of extinction to one of the top teams in the Shore Conference.

And it looks like it will stay that way for a while.

“I think we’re gonna break through and be a little stronger for the second half of the season,” said coach John Boughton, whose Toms River team was 10-0 entering its Jan. 12 match with Manchester.  “And we don’t graduate anyone after this year and we have a strong eighth-grader coming in, so we should be even stronger next year.”

The Griffins’ 10 wins are their highest total since going 11-4 in 2012-13. They went 1-14 the following year, and over the next seven seasons won a total of just three matches. There was no season in 2020-21, and Boughton took over last year and guided Donovan Catholic to a 6-9 record.

“Donovan Catholic fell into a little bit of a bind,” Boughton explained. “None of the teachers in the school wanted to coach the team. They were afraid they weren’t gonna have a bowling program.”

That’s where Boughton came in. A certified coach and veteran bowler, John has given bowling instruction for 45 years. He was an assistant at Brick Memorial when his daughters bowled there; and was a long-time coach in the junior league at Ocean Lanes in Lakewood. Junior coordinator Karen Chirichello and several of the bowling parents asked Boughton to take the Griffins job, which he accepted prior to last season.

Thanks to his connections through the Ocean Lanes leagues, Boughton immediately procured three solid bowlers for last year’s team – then-sophomores Matt Jinks and Luke Strippoli and freshman Nick Logan. Collin Hopkins also joined the team as a sophomore. Strippoli’s brother, Chris, came on board as a freshman this season to create a formidable lineup.  

“I knew the three of them through the youth program at Ocean, and the younger brother joined this year,” Boughton said. “We actually weren’t bad last year, but it was an adjustment for them.

“High school bowling is a different environment, a different game than they’re used to. You have five players going against five, where in a league there might be three. It’s a little slower in a high school match. And the lanes change. There are a lot more intricacies.”

The five bowlers made the adjustment over the course of last season and have exploded this year. In Donovan’s first 10 matches, they won 28 of the 30 games that were bowled, claiming eight matches by 3-0 counts, and beating Lacey twice by 2-1 scores. After averaging 800 pins per match as a team, Donovan was up to 950 through its first 10 matches this year.  

As of Jan. 11, No. 5 anchor bowler Jinks led the team with a 201 average and was coming off his high game (267) and high series (690) on Jan. 9 against Point Pleasant Boro. Luke Strippoli had a 196 average with a high game of 225 and high series of 619; followed by Chris Strippoli (193 average, 263 high game, 638 high series) and Logan (185 average, 256 high game, 607 high series).

“I call them my core four,” Boughton said. “They all feed off each other, they get along. Not that Hopkins doesn’t, but they’re all around 190, they all bowl 200. They clown around, they’re all building on each other.”

Speaking of Hopkins, the original plan was to rotate freshman Dylan Tavaglione with him. But the junior has proved tough to displace, having hoisted his average from 120 to 171, with a high game of 213 and high series of 605. Tavaglione is at the ready should anyone have a bad day.

“We’ve got four returning bowlers who have all improved, and a freshman who is very good,” Boughton said. “They’re learning about being teammates. I keep pushing them that you win as a team and lose as a team. They all get along and they know we’re gonna get a lot of wins if they support each other. They’re growing together and making friendships.”

In doing so, they have their coach excited for the future. Not just next year, but next month when the Shore Conference and NJSIAA Central Jersey Group 1 sectional tournaments get underway. Perched in first place in the Shore Conference B South Division, Donovan Catholic will be one of the 14 teams to qualify for the SCT barring a massive collapse. But Boughton is more excited about the state tournament since it will pit the Griffins against schools of their size.

“We have a decent chance in the Shore Conference, even when we’re fighting against the bigger schools,” he said. “And definitely when we’re in Group One going against the smaller schools we should be among the cream of the crop for the state of New Jersey.”

It’s hard to believe that just two years ago the program nearly ceased to exist.