The Newark High School boys bowling team's goal is to make it back to the state tournament.

The Newark High School boys bowling team's goal is to make it back to the state tournament.

The Wildcats, who qualified in the event's second year in 2008, seem to have all the pieces in place to make that happen. They return a veteran lineup anchored by senior Bret Peck, who qualified for state as an individual in 2009, and the early results have been nothing but promising.

Newark was 4-0 overall before last Saturday's East Central Conference match against Licking Valley. The Wildcats defeated Sparta Highland in their ECC opener on Dec. 11 and rolled a single-game school record (1,130 pins) in the process. They also improved to 2-0 in OCC-Ohio Division by defeating Groveport last Tuesday 2,130-2,115 as Peck had games of 227 and 224. He rolled a 266 in a win over Pickerington North earlier in the season.

"I don't want to jinx us or anything, but this is the most talented team we've had in my five years here," coach Cory Smart said. "Bret's clearly our leader, and he's done a full 360 since last season. He's got his emotions under control a little better now and that's only going to help us."

Seniors Jon Sears and Branden McVicker, junior Konner Stout and sophomore Zach Peck also return for the Wildcats, who have added junior Conner Mingus and senior Matt Grandstaff. They advanced to the district tournament the past three years and qualified a year ago by finishing second (3,968) behind Zanesville (4,022) at the Rainbow Lanes sectional.

The five-team ECC also includes Utica and Granville, which will compete against the Wildcats on Wednesday at Valley Lanes. Lakewood, which won last year's league title, is not fielding a boys or girls team. The four OCC divisional winners are expected to compete in a tournament later in the season.

"If we keep working I can see us making it back to state as a team. We're off to a really good start," Smart said. "Last year, we lost a couple of times early in the year and that hurt our confidence some."

The girls team is a two-time defending champion in the ECC, but the Wildcats graduated Jennifer Johnson after she qualified for last year's state tournament. They finished fourth (3,351) behind champion Cardington (3,426) at the sectional to advance to the district tournament for a second consecutive year.

Seniors Cherise Beard, a three-year starter who struggled with mono late last season, and McKenzie Dwiggins are the top returnees for coach Denise Wiley. Juniors Samantha Lantz, Jen Hensen and Sam Goodman also are back. The newcomers are Sara Potenza, Noel McCall, Hope Ervin and Taylor Baker.

The Wildcats defeated Groveport 1,689-1,494 last Tuesday to improve to 3-1 overall. A loss to Highland was their first in the ECC in more than two years.

•Granville is in a rebuilding phase after graduating most of its top bowlers, including Jay Skaggs.

The Blue Aces have only two girls, but senior Olivia Sundin has picked up the game pretty quickly. She's competing on the boys team while freshman Katelyn Merkle is on the junior varsity.

"Olivia just started this (past) summer after I recruited her," coach Sue Bishop said. "I got her into a junior-adult league, and she just took off from there (rolling a career-best 192 during a match with Utica on Dec. 11). She practices all the time now."

The boys team, which was 1-2 overall before competing against Highland last Saturday, returns senior Matt Bracken. Classmates Oliver Raker, J.T. Thacker and Shane Dolan also have some varsity experience. The roster includes junior Kris Casson and sophomore Gabe Morrison as well.

The Blue Aces eventually might be helped by junior Josh Wolgamot, who is pushing for a spot after he rolled a career-best 213 in the junior varsity match against Utica. Bishop will keep recruiting, too.

"We're keeping the door open; it's never closed," she said. "It's a fun sport and very competitive. I'll keep telling everyone look what Olivia's been able to do in just a short amount of time."