“Oh, you bowl? That’s still a thing?” It’s a common reaction Essex High School bowlers hear as they explain the sport to which they’re dedicated. With a declining interest in bowling worldwide, they can’t quite blame people for the sport’s bad rap.

But then comes the next stab: “Bowling’s not a sport.”

As the team propels into its second year as an official Vermont Principals’ Association varsity sport, it knows the claim isn’t warranted. And they’re working to rid the related stigma.

This year, 12 bowlers represent the Hornets, and that’s after losing four varsity members and gaining six new. The squad’s recruiting for future seasons, too.

This increased popularity contrasts with bowling’s national demise. In the sport’s heyday in the 1960s, an estimated 12,000 alleys operated across the country. As of February 2017, IBISWorld Market Research reported just under 3,700 centers remain.

Coach Justin Norris racked off a list of local alleys that closed their doors — Essex, Milton, St. Albans and Burlington — saying lacking access makes it difficult to establish a growth model for the high school sport.

Junior Alex Prim receives a round of high-fives during the final round of the team’s Dec. 30 matchup at Spare Time in Colchester.Around the state, the VPA league hovers at 12 teams. While it’s only been a varsity entity since last year, the coaches kick-started Essex’s team seven years ago as an exhibition group. In 2014, they won the championship.

Like all dedicated athletes, the students said they’re gunning for the same this year. With a sizeable bunch of new bowlers, Norris said he’s seen notable progress, but there’s still work to do.

Alex Prim, VT

Junior Alex Prim receives a round of high-fives during the final round of the team’s Dec. 30 matchup at
Spare Time in Colchester.

For junior Alex Prim, bowling’s in his blood. At age 5, his dad — a hardcore bowler — signed him up for league play. Years later, he’s knocking strikes at Spare Time in Colchester, the Hornets’ home lane.

Senior Reese Meunier’s story is a bit less genetic. In middle school, basketball was his game. But come high school, he opted for the two-practice, one-match-a-week sport that affords time for a part-time job.

Essex High School Bowling

Pins ricochet as an Essex High School bowler notches a spare.

After parting ways with the basketball team this year, classmate Emily Harvey enlisted as well. The friendly, fun teammates and relaxing competition resonates with her. “I never saw myself bowling,” Harvey said. “Never. Especially because I was so involved with other athletics, but I’m glad things happened the way they did.”

Late last month, the Hornets passed around high-fives with coaches Norris and Tom Preska as they notched second place in a morning of matches between Burlington, South Burlington and Enosburg high schools on December 30.

Unlike many sports, bowling doesn’t lend well for viewing. Even with the absence of bleachers, though, fans crowded the walkway, leaving almost no room to squeeze by.

Emily Harvey, VT

Emily Harvey concentrates on her next throw.

On the floor, Harvey lifted her ball to eye-level, concentrated on the pins awaiting demolition, exhaled, smoothly swung her arm back toward the crowd and released the ball. As it traveled down the slick track, her teammates held their breath before a hollow clank ensued.

One by one, the Hornets followed. And one by one, the pins hammered down.

A strike brings instant gratification, the bowlers said. Hand-eye coordination, consistency, teamwork and perseverance are all skills they embody. Not having an overly competitive mindset helps, too.

When the match concluded and fans trickled out of the massive building, disco lights replaced fluorescents as the pop music notched up in volume.

Back on the floor, a Hornet and his family bowled a round for the fun of it.

Prim, Meunier and Harvey recognized bowling is a dying trend among today’s generation, giving credence to the questionable glances they endure.

But their coaches are dedicated to bowling’s revival. Both Norris and Preska grew up bowling in junior leagues and continue bowling in men’s leagues. Preska, whose father was a professional bowler, focuses on the kids’ technical game, Norris noted.

In a society that “no longer bowls,” the students and coaches encourage people to hit the lanes to see what the team and sport are all about, even if just for a day.

Even if they don’t fully reverse the trend, they insist one message rolls on after the final pin-sweep: It is a sport.