BATON ROUGE, La. - John Gaines of Orlando, Fla., always jokes that it's not a successful trip to the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships unless you get your picture taken, and at this point in the 2012 event, that still means taking the lead.
The three-time champion and his Lodge Lanes Too teammates accomplished that goal and had the chance to pose for the camera after surging into the top spot in Team All-Events with a 9,744 total at the Baton Rouge River Center on Wednesday. Five Horsemen of Racine, Wis., previously held the lead with 9,731.
Lodge Lanes Too got off to a slow start in team Tuesday with a 976 game but battled back with 1,161 and 1,059 for a 3,196 effort, which is fourth in Regular Team. Nicholas J's Pro Shop 2 of La Crosse, Wis., leads with 3,401.
That momentum for Lodge Lanes Too carried over into doubles and singles, where good communication helped them navigate the challenging lane condition.
"A lot of information was exchanged between doubles and singles, and Jeff Ussery from our companion team was spot on with what he told us about the pair they were on, which is the main reason we got off to such a strong start in singles," said Gaines, who made his 24th USBC Open Championships appearance. "I don't know if what we got is enough, but we did what we could. All five guys shot 1,900, and that's a pretty solid effort. You can't win unless you leave with the lead, and we did that."
Gaines, a back-to-back Team All-Events winner in 1997 and 1998 as well as the 1998 Regular Singles champion, led the way for Lodge Lanes Too with a 1,994 all-events total. He was joined by 1987 Team All-Events champion Mitch Jabczenski (1,961), 2004 Regular Singles and All-Events winner John Janawicz (1,940), recent Professional Bowlers Association champion Scott Newell (1,930) and former Team USA member Vernon Peterson (1,919).
As someone who's enjoyed a lot of success at the Open Championships, Gaines started preparing for this year's event 364 days ago. As a group, the members of Lodge Lanes Too and Hammerbowling.com began practicing and communicating by phone and email about three months ago.
"There were quite a few emails and phone calls," Gaines said. "Anytime someone practiced at home, there was a call or email about what they saw or what ball and surface they used. That helped us narrow things down, and the closer it got, the more often we talked."
Individually, all 10 bowlers are talented and have growing resumes, but it takes good camaraderie and communication to be successful in team competition. The first thing Gaines looked for when putting the group together was good teammates. Being a good bowler was second.
The night before heading into Baton Rouge, eight of the 10 bowlers got together at Island Strikez in Gulfport, Miss., which is managed by Mike Sealy, the anchor bowler for Hammerbowling.com. While it was a chance to practice together for the first time, it was more about team building and getting comfortable together.
Most of the group reconvened on the Showcase Lanes at the River Center on Monday night for an hour of practice that allowed them to get used to the high ceilings and approaches inside the venue.
"We just wanted a chance to make sure we were all on the same page about how we like to exchange information, especially since a couple of the guys were new to the group," Gaines said. "The first night wasn't as much about bowling as it was about having a good time and everyone getting to know each other better. That makes it a lot easier to go out there and bowl well."
Gaines gained a new appreciation for the Open Championships from USBC Hall of Famer Bob Goike, who showed him the ropes more than a decade ago, and he hopes he can help his teammates see things the same way.
"I realized what this event was about when I heard my own teammates announced in the squad room for the first time," Gaines said. "That made it different and more real, and that's when it clicked for me. I think that's when it started for these guys, too. They're young and talented, and now they're really starting to understand the history of the tournament."
Hammerbowling.com, which is seventh in Regular Team with 3,154, includes Shawn Lee, who shot 300 at the 2008 event in Albuquerque, N.M., and competed for the 10th time, Ussery (five appearances), Matt Gilman (six), Keith Nolan (10) and Sealy (18). Jabczenski is the veteran of the two teams with 40 consecutive appearances.
Lee set the pace for Hammerbowling.com with a 2,082 all-events total, which is fourth overall, and was followed by Ussery (1,940), Nolan (1,733), Gilman (1,723) and Sealy (1,699). Ryan Whitney of Lewisville, Texas, leads Regular All-Events with 2,170.
"Today was really important for us to go through because it helped everyone understand what it takes first-hand," Gaines said. "You have to stay calm and stay in the moment, but you also have to realize you're climbing a ladder and stay aggressive. Even if we don't win, the experience of going through all of this will only help us down the road."
Sponsors for the 2012 USBC Open Championships include Circus Circus Reno, Eldorado Hotel Casino Reno and Silver Legacy Resort Casino Reno. Other sponsors include the Belle of Baton Rouge, official brackets sponsor; Kegel, official lane maintenance provider; Humana, official registration sponsor; Bud Light and Budweiser, official beer sponsors; The Advocate, official publication sponsor; Brunswick, official lane provider; Steltronic, official scoring system; Storm Bowling Products and Nationwide Insurance.