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Josh Hale cut his teeth on bowling.

"I know I have a videotape of when I was 6 or 7 bowling in a junior tournament," he said. "I bowled two-handed until I was like 9 years old."

Since those early days with his nine-pound Crown Jewel ball, Hale has gone on to compete on two national championship teams at Wichita State University in Kansas and receive first-team All-America bowling honors.

Two years ago, he even won $50,000 at a megabucks tournament in Las Vegas.

Now the 29-year-old Billings left-hander, with a powerful hook, has his sights set on helping a Magic City team, B&H Bowling Supply, win a regular division championship at the American Bowling Congress Tournament.

Hale and his experienced teammates - Ted Bertrand, Dave Winslow, Keith Loran and Sid Parlato - will be on lane 38 at the MetraPark Expo Center Thursday night at 10:30. The score to beat in what is considered the tournament's showcase event is the 3,354 rolled on March 29 by Bowlers Edge Pro Shop of Neenah, Wis.

"I think that's beatable, especially with the guys we have," Hale said. "I think we'll match up pretty well."

A bold assertion, perhaps, but Hale, Loran and Bertrand have all bowled perfect 300 games at past ABC Tournaments. Loran, Bertrand and Parlato were also on the Prestige Toyota team, which placed second out of nearly 17,300 teams with a 3,356 pinfall at the 1995 ABC Tournament in Reno.

"There's some pretty stacked teams that bowl this," Hale said. "They focus on this as their time to really shine. I think we will make a pretty good statement for Billings. We'll show that we can bowl out here, too."

Hale's parents, Larry and Janice, along with business partners, opened Fireside Lanes in Billings two months before his fourth birthday in 1976. He groomed his game at the 24-lane center, and said that bowling in front of hometown fans would provide a valuable boost.

"Emotions play a big part," he said. "It's always nice when you have people supporting you. It seems like people have been talking about our team bowling for a while. I think it will be pretty fun. I think it will be a challenge.

"I haven't bowled with (B&H) before, but I know they get geared up to bowl nationals."

This will be Hale's 10th ABC Tournament. He has averaged nearly 207 for his 81 games, with his high all-events total of 2,118 set in 1996 in Salt Lake City.

"Josh has the big power game," said teammate Winslow. "If there's something out there, I'm telling you, that guy will tear it up."

"He can create a bigger pocket because he has such a strong strike ball," Bertrand said.

Hale, who has bowled with Wichita squads in the past, fashioned his 300 in team competition in Albuquerque, N.M., in 2000.

"I was looking at some of my numbers. I've had a lot of good games and a lot of bad games," Hale said. "If you don't get matched up just right in the right part of the lane with the right ball you can really shoot some low scores.

"On the other side," he said, "if you get lined up and you make good shots, you'll score. That's all you can ask."

After making several trips to the Expo Center since February to watch fellow bowlers compete, Hale said, "The left side looks pretty scoreable. I think Ted (the squad's other lefty) and I will do well.

"The other guys we have (all right-handers) don't really hook it a lot. They play pretty straight," he said. "It looks like you have to play kind of straight out there. The guys that are really covering a lot of boards are struggling."

Hale said the demanding lane conditions at the ABC Tournament really place a premium on shot-making.

"I really like challenging shots where you have to make good shots to strike," he said. "It really brings out the best in some players."

Hale, the MVP of the 1995 collegiate tournament, certainly has a history of delivering at crunch time. It was his 10th-frame strike - you might recall - that helped bowling-crazy Wichita State to its national crown in 1995.

He is now working toward becoming a certified public accountant and is aware of the bottom line at the ABC Tournament. He believes a team score near 3,400 is entirely possible, which is an average of about 227 per game for the team's 15 games.

Daunting yes, and to achieve something like that "communication and shot-making are the two most important things," Hale said. "We all know each other's games pretty well to where we can say 'Why don't you try this ball' or 'Why don't you stand here and look at this target.' "

ABC Tournament competition will conclude on June 23, and first place in the regular team standings is worth $20,000. The current first-place team averaged 224 per game, meaning the door is just slightly open.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Hale said of the competition. "Team bowling is really fun because you get the emotion of one person and multiply it by five. You can really elevate your game just on emotion, I think."

Cash, the giant Joe Norris Trophy and an eagle award - symbolic of an ABC championship - await the eventual champion.

"That would be a nice journey," Hale said of reaching the summit. "Definitely a good destination point."

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