IF YOU were asked to identify the NHIAA varsity sport where the competitive edge males have over females is the smallest, what sport would you come up with? Golf? Skiing? Maybe gymnastics?

The correct answer might be bowling, a co-ed sport the NHIAA has offered since 2010. The NHIAA has recognized an individual state champion in bowling for the last 11 years, and a female has won the championship four times. Pinkerton Academy’s Raina Stobbs earned the individual title in both 2012 and 2014; Spaulding’s Rachel Bamford won the championship in 2017; and Raymond’s Madilyn Yockel was the top NHIAA bowler last year.

While Stobbs, Bamford and Yockel each prevailed in the championship flight, the NHIAA also offers a championship in the medal flight, which is for bowlers new to the sport or those with a skill level below those who compete in the championship flight. In 2014, when Stobbs won the overall championship, another female, Pinkerton’s Natalie Fabrizio, finished first in the medal flight.

“To me it’s an equal playing field,” Souhegan coach Tim Frye said. “You’re bowling on the same lane. Yes, on the male side you have what we call ‘power players’ who throw the ball a little harder and have some more revolution to it, but in certain cases having that is also a disadvantage because it creates big risk, big reward.

“For a lot of the females, if they have a little bit more of a finesse game, they’re able to be more accurate. There are things in some cases they may lack and they actually gain over some of the guys. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.”

New Hampshire currently has 15 co-ed bowling teams that compete in one division: Goffstown, Keene, Stevens, Merrimack, Spaulding, Raymond, Dover, Pinkerton, Souhegan, Winnacunnet, Coe-Brown, Bishop Guertin, Hollis/Brookline, Sanborn and Hillsboro-Deering. According to the U.S High School Bowling Federation, New Hampshire is one of 34 states that sponsors varsity bowling.

NHIAA teams typically practice at least once per week, and then have competitions on each Saturday during the winter sports season. The Saturday meets usually include four teams and feature an individual competition as well as a team competition, known as the Baker Round, in which each of five bowlers bowl two frames in a string.

“Bowling is probably bigger outside of New England, but we’re doing OK here with high school bowling. We really are,” Pinkerton coach Janet Boyden said. “Ten-pin bowling is big outside of New England because there isn’t any candlepin bowling outside of New England. Not only that, there are not as many bowling centers here, and we’ve even lost a few in recent years.”

Frye said his Souhegan teams have drawn players from every section of the student body. He’s had bowlers who were varsity athletes in other sports, and he’s had bowlers who have never participated in school sports.

“I’ve had kids who were involved in theater and robotics and bowled,” Frye said. “It gives them an opportunity to be part of the athletic body and they never would have viewed themselves as part of the athletic body in any other manner.

“A lot of them don’t know what to expect. They don’t know if it’s something really to be taken 100% seriously, but with the culture we’ve built at Souhegan, they know from Day 1 that we’re here to compete, we’re here to learn. This isn’t horsing-around time … this isn’t a club. We treat it no different than any other varsity sport.”

Of the 15 NHIAA bowling teams, seven have won at least one team championship: Spaulding (2011), Hollis/Brookline (2012), Souhegan (2013), Pinkerton (2014), Pinkerton (2015), Keene (2016), Goffstown (2017), Goffstown (2018) Stevens (2019), Pinkerton (2020) and Stevens (2021).

“We’ve held pretty strong at 15 teams for the last few years,” Frye said. “Now we have to figure out how to expand the sport even more. I would say each team averages between 10 and 12 players. I look around and wonder why some of these schools don’t have a team. It’s not a very expensive sport to get into. For the most part, you’re just paying for the lane time, and it’s not like hockey where getting ice time can be difficult and really competitive.”

Although most NHIAA bowlers are male, Frye and Boyden both said it’s not unusual for a team to have at least one female on its roster. Several years ago, Souhegan had a 16-player team that included 14 females.

Boyden said Bamford earning a scholarship to bowl at Sacred Heart is one of the most encouraging things she’s seen for NHIAA bowling in her 11 seasons as Pinkerton’s coach. As a sophomore, Bamford helped Sacred Heart defeat defending national champion Vanderbilt in the opening round of the NCAA Championship.

“She’s from Rochester and something like that only helps the sport here,” Boyden said. “She was also nominated as Sacred Heart’s NCAA Woman of the Year.”

Frye, who coached that Souhegan team with primarily females, will be coaching an all-female team next year. He’s agreed to become the coach of Saint Anselm’s women’s bowling program, which is scheduled to begin NCAA competition in October. The Hawks will be a member of the East Coast Conference and will compete and train at Yankee Lanes in Manchester.

For the rest of this season, however, Frye will be coaching at the NHIAA level, where males and females do not compete on separate teams.

“I don’t really see much of a disadvantage for the females,” he said. “Like anything else, how much you’re willing to put into it is how much you’re going to get out of it.

“I like to say bowling is non-discriminatory, whether it’s male/female or you’re talking about the standard athletic build. You don’t have to be 6-foot-2 and 210 (pounds) to be really serviceable and good at this. You can be smaller. You can be just about anything and still be a really good bowler.

“There are a lot of people we coach who have never bowled before. Then they go off to college and take their bowling ball with them.”