Heritage waited 34 years to crown its first state champion.
Brittney Ensley was worth the wait.
An engaging story of perseverance in her own right, the Lady Mountaineer senior delivered the second best performance in state tournament history in winning the TSSAA Division I bowling championship last Friday at the Smyrna Bowling Center.
Ensley won four of her five matches during the individual round of the tournament, missing the sweep by a single pinfall in her final match. The state crown had long since been secured by that point, Ensley’s 2,705 pinfall for the tournament just 24 back Hendersonville’s Christina D’Ordine’s state mark.
“I was way excited,” said Ensley, who knocked off the state’s top-ranked bowler in her opening match on Friday.
“Brittany struck the first three frames,” Heritage coach Mark Rowland said, “and just got stronger and stronger from there on out. The question was how out front she could get and could she keep winning?”
Ensley’s tournament total was nearly 1,000 pins better than Division II champion Miranda Mott of Ensworth.
A day later, the Lady Mountaineers toyed with winning it all, Ensley and fellow all-tournament selection Kara Crowe pacing Heritage into the semifinals of the team competition. Crowe finished third in the individual tournament the day before as the Lady Mountaineers concluded Rowland’s second season as coach a program-best 16-1.
Heritage has produced countless great athletes and teams through the years, high school All-American basketball player Cait McMahan its most decorated, football player David McMahan arguably its most successful at the college level and slugger Kara Murr the school’s first Division I softball signee. That Ensley would become the school’s first state champion in any sport is fitting tribute to them all.
“It’s pretty neat,” Heritage athletics director Chip Fuller said. “Being the first-ever state champion for our school is pretty cool.”
A nationally-ranked motocrosser, Ensley announced her arrival as a bowler to be reckoned with when she finished third at the state tournament as a sophomore. Later that year, the Lady Mountaineer history-maker landed badly on a jump during a motocross race, suffering a broken back that forced her to spend much of her junior year at Heritage in a brace.
“I was going over a jump,” Ensley said, “and I just yard dogged it right into the ground.”
That junior season was Rowland’s first as coach. When he met Ensley for the first time at tryouts that fall, this season’s landmark run was almost over before it started.
“Kid walks in with a spinal brace and says, ‘I’m here to bowl,’” Rowland said. “I said, ‘Uh-uh.’”
Ensley, who’d come to the tryouts with her grandma, Ursula, was told to go a few lanes down and practice until she could produce a doctor’s release. Rowland said he thought at the time that would be the end of it.
“My grandmother and I went two lanes over, and I bowled over 200 a couple of times, and he (Rowland) said, ‘Whoa!’” Ensley said.
“Here’s a kid in a brace bowling 200,” Rowland said. “I’m thinking, ‘Please get a release. Please get a release.’”
Ensley would go on to finish 16th in last year’s state tournament, setting the stage for a senior year closing charge. Ensley and older sister Breanna were plank owners in the Heritage program, both learning to bowl at nearby Crest Lanes.
Ensley’s performance during last week’s title matches was a textbook display of grace under fire, Rowland said. The state tournament is one of the TSSAA’s most heavily attended events. Many teams arrive with fans and parents in tow, complete with high-fives, fist bumps and choreographed chants for strikes. It can get quite loud.
“It’s something you absolutely wouldn’t believe unless you saw it,” Rowland said. “I’ve never been to anything as loud. It’s like you took the crowd at a state championship basketball game and put them in a bathroom. These people are doing chants and cheers during matches.”
So, what do you do after you become the first state champion your school has ever known?
For Ensley, it’s back to motocross. The day after the Lady Mountaineers returned from the state tournament, she was back on her bike, a Yamaha 250cc two-stroke.
“It’s a beast!” she said.