Bowling’s popularity was at its peak during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Multiple leagues were all over the Valley. That is, until 2008, during what some have termed the Great Recession. U.S. Bowling Congress member numbers dropped. Changes had to be made to keep lanes from closing.

AMF Peoria Lanes general manager Bob Larrick said, “A lot of companies have had to change the market of bowling.”

That meant less competitive leagues to more friendly competition. It also meant going after younger bowlers.

“Now, kids are getting back into it,” Larrick said.

Pro bowler Jason Belmonte, who goes by “Belmo,” has been part of the new wave of younger bowlers, Larrick said. Belmo throws his ball using two hands.

“He’s one of the new twentysomething bowlers,” Larrick said. “In my day, bowling was with one hand. Now, close to half use two hands, mostly boys.”

Along with computerized lane cleaners and ball-setters, bowling balls have also become high-tech. Youths now interested in bowling may own three, four or five balls, Larrick said.

Many bowlers use weighted balls. Holes are driven into the ball to place weights to allow the ball to drift from one side of the lane to the other. Some bowlers even carry three or four balls with different weights inside. The holes have to be plugged to enter certain competitions. Some bowling officials want to prohibit bowling balls with open holes by the year 2020, while others say, “plug it now or don’t plug it at all,” Larrick said.

For those youths who want to become part of a league, AMF Peoria Lanes is there to help out. Larrick and league coordinator Susan Thomas agreed that bowling has become more expensive over the years. Balls now cost up to $200 and tournament entry fees can cost between $50 and $100.

Thomas said one side of the front counter has shoes, bowling balls and bags, and with a donation, young bowlers can take them home.

“We try our best through booster groups, so everybody can have everything they need,” Thomas said.

Booster fundraisers help, Thomas said, raising $2,000 to $3,000 a year. So, a recent $1,500 donation from BPOE Sun City Lodge 2559 Elks is helping AMF Peoria Lanes send more young competitors to tournaments.

This year’s Junior Bowlers season started May 19. The league has been at AMF Peoria for 12 years, Larrick said, and Thomas has been there all that time. Any child age 4 to 20 can join. Three age brackets are available: Bumpers 4 to 7; Preps 7 to 12; and Majors 13 to 20.

Larrick said around 100 youths are involved in the summer and 130 for the fall and winter season.

This is the first year the Elks Lodge has donated to the program, but Larrick said it is looking at making a donation every year with approval from the national Elks organization.

It is not just for tournaments, either.

Larrick said, “Bowling for kids has a future.”

Thomas said one of AMF Peoria Lane’s bowlers received a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University; another bowler, Savannah Carr, went to Valparaiso University in Indiana and is now in the Bowling Hall of Fame. Two bowlers received scholarships to University of Birmingham, Ala., while another attended Grand Canyon University on a bowling scholarship.

“Just like baseball and football, scouts follow them,” Thomas said. “Parents are very appreciative.”

“Plus, you don’t have to be muscle-bound — just practice and perfect your game. It gives non-regular athletes an opportunity,” Larrick said.

This month, six Junior Gold bowlers (teens) will be going to a national tournament. They have to be invited, Larrick said. The tournament is free, but they have to pay their own expenses to get there.

Junior bowler season has already started. Bowlers play Saturday morning on 20 to 24 lanes set aside for them. Big Dawgs night is Monday for junior bowlers, when they bowl on a sports pattern. More oil is spread on the lanes for that night.

Larrick said junior bowlers want to take their games to a higher level.

“Kids have a better attitude, don’t get mad or complain,” Larrick said. “They’re good kids, that’s the thing.”

“It just changes their lives,” Thomas said.

AMF Peoria Lanes, 8475 W. Olive Ave., is open seven days a week, holidays included. Hours are noon to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 1 a.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday. Call 623-486-1496 or email peorialanes@amf.com for more information.