Evanston’s boys bowling program took a historic step forward Saturday.

The Wildkits earned a third place finish at the Glenbrook North Regional tournament and will advance an entire team from the regional to sectional for the first time ever in Illinois High School Association postseason play.

Evanston pinfall of 5,547 placed third behind Glenbrook North (5,949) and Notre Dame (5,609) and was more than good enough to secure an automatic qualifying spot in next Saturday’s Hinsdale South Sectional. Fourth place finisher New Trier (5,493) also automatically advanced.

Shrugging off a disappointing regular season, in which they registered a sub-par 7-12 dual meet won-loss record, the Wildkits caught fire behind junior Joe Leibforth. Leibforth averaged 206 over 6 games on his way to a 1,237 series and a fourth place individual finish.

The Kits also counted major contributions from sophomore Aiden Cella (1,164), junior Zev Grodzin (1,078) and senior Devontae Hillman (1,057) while also getting scoring off the bench from freshman Isaac Clay-Barbour (635) and sophomore Khaleil Gumbs (376).

A fast start Saturday that started with a matchup against the eventual team champ, Glenbrook North, helped Evanston get on a roll and the Wildkits never let up after that. They outscored the Spartans by 40 pins with a 977 game, and secured a qualifying berth for the sectional by following up with scores of 985, 890, 933, 847 and 915.

Head coach Harold Bailey couldn’t have been prouder of the step his young squad took for the first time in the 9-year history of the program.

“I always knew that the potential was there, and I guess we saved our best for last,” Bailey said. “For some reason during the season we just didn’t click in the matches we needed to. We limped in at the finish with some matches that we should have won but didn’t, and I think that was a wakeup call. I finally got on them and told them you have to show up and bowl.

“We’ve had individual qualifiers (including Jake Rubin, the first ETHS  individual state qualifier last season) but I really wanted to make it to the sectional as a team. They knew the task ahead of them today, and they went out and got it. They put in the work to get to this step and it’s really a testament to them.”

Bailey didn’t emphasize getting off to a good start Saturday morning at the Brunswick Zone in Mount Prospect, but noted that fast start helped build momentum.

“We were in first place after the first 2 games and I told our guys that now the others have to catch us. Just stay consistent, that’s all we have to do to be in the top 3 or 4,” the coach explained.

“Today our leader, Joe Leibforth, really stepped up and the others were really consistent. Today was his high series for the year (including a high game of 257). He struggled at the beginning, but he worked through it and the other guys helped him with that. He took matters into his own hands and that’s what leaders do.

“What we accomplished today was the shot heard ‘round the world to me. It was so nice to see other teams coming by our lanes and wondering what Evanston was up to. It was definitely a team effort.”

Top three team finishers at the sectional level will advance to the IHSA state finals and Bailey believes his squad can be in the mix after averaging 185 per bowler Saturday. In the past, teams have qualified with averages in the 180 range.

“Why stop now?” the coach asked. “I knew it was there, and there’s a lot more left in the tank for us. If we just focus on ourselves, you never know what will happen. I know they’ll give it a whole-hearted effort, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for Evanston Township High School.

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