Ain't no stopping him now

Originally featured in the Nov. 2023 edition of Bowlers Journal 

Spencer Robarge sat down with his mother, Susan, just over a decade ago for a chat that would change his life. Robarge, who was 10 or 11 at the time, had just finished in third place at Junior Gold. A major accomplishment. But Robarge wanted more.
He had been bowling for nearly his entire life. “I was probably one or two when I threw my first shot with the bumpers and the whole nine yards,” Spencer says. He started bowling league at four years old. Without bumpers, he averaged a 95. As years passed, he kept getting better and better. His older brother, Blake DeMore, was a former Wichita State bowler who bowled some on tour. Spencer watched him do what he did and wanted the same.
“He said, ‘Mom, I want to win,’” Susan Robarge recalls. “I said, ‘We're gonna have to travel a lot. You're gonna have to bowl as many tournaments as you can. Are you up for that?’ Because I said, it's not going to be easy. And he goes, ‘Yeah. That's what I want.’”
The next year, the Springfield, Missouri, native won the event.
A decade later, the 21-year-old Robarge is the best college bowler in the country after being one of the most decorated youth bowlers of all-time. The Wichita State southpaw star won the National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association Rookie of the Year award as a freshman, the NCBCA Most Valuable Player award as a sophomore and led the Shockers to the 2023 USBC National Championship.
Robarge enters his junior year looking to propel Wichita State to another national title. Another Bowler of the Year trophy would be great, too.
But the “Old Soul” of college bowling has more on his mind than just strikes and spares.
“I try to keep myself honest,” Robarge says. “I think people try to say that they do this and they do that and everybody tells them that they're great and whatnot all the time. I feel like it's better to feel like you're always chasing something and to feel like you have to continue to work towards what you want to do. You don't want to think that you're as good as you're going to be.”
A Star in the Making
Decades ago, a friend of Susan Robarge’s mother, Clara Vest, came to her house and asked if she wanted to go bowling. Vest had never been before but took up her friend on the offer. She was quickly hooked. “She never shot a 300 or 800 or won any titles but she just loved bowling,” Susan says of her mother. The two friends started going to the alley all the time, and the owner soon suggested they join a league. Vest became the secretary of almost every league she ever bowled.
Her children liked bowling, but they didn’t pick it up as intensely as she did. But then she passed her love of bowling down to Demore and Robarge, and they embraced it with all their heart. “She was all about it. She loved it. She just wanted to pass it on to us. She would always either take us to go practice or always wanted to go watch us at leagues or tournaments,” Demore says. 
Demore first fell in love with it. Then came Spencer, who grew up in centers bowling and watching his older brother. “There's 12 years between my boys,” Susan says. “I had one that could drive and could just pretty much do his own thing. The bowling center that we bowled at, they closed at like 3 in the morning. Spencer didn't understand why he couldn't stay till 3 in the morning with his brother. He'd cry and I'd be like, ‘You gotta go to school. I gotta get up and go to work. You can't be out that late.’ He has loved it from the time he picked up a ball.”
Weekends were spent traveling all over the country to tournaments and participating in as many events as they could. The early years weren’t as successful as they would become as Robarge got older, but that wasn't a problem for Susan, who grew up as a roller-skater.
“My parents were pretty much the same way with me,” Susan said. “My dad drove a truck for Kraft for 45 years. I know the last thing in the world he wanted to do was get in a car and drive to Lincoln, Nebraska, or Fort Worth, Texas, to go watch me roller-skate, but they did it. So I remember how invested they were in me in fulfilling my dreams. I wanted to do that for both of my kids.”
When Robarge won the 2015 U12 Junior Gold Championships, he said his life changed, both positively and not. “I felt like I had a target on my back basically everywhere I went, not really because of anything I'd done; just because I had won the tournament,” Robarge said. There were more negative things being said about him, behind his back and otherwise. He thought people looked at him differently. It weighed on him.
Both Susan and Spencer say those experiences helped him grow in different ways. Spencer says having his brother and especially his mother around him to support him has been crucial in his life. The trio are extremely tight-knit, even to this day. “The people that you have behind you are really the people that matter the most,” Demore said. “She just wants her kids to succeed, wants us to succeed. She's just very, very supportive and has been for all the years that we've been doing this.”
Robarge finished his youth career with 12 Storm Youth Championships and USBC youth records with 41 perfect games and nearly two dozen 800 series. But only one school truly recruited him out of high school: Wichita State.
“Nobody's gonna believe this, and you can write it,” Robarge says. “I was only recruited by one school. I had people that would text me in Messenger or Facebook or whatever, ‘Hey, you should apply here.’ But they wouldn't give me a real reason.”
It’s something that still confounds Robarge to this day. He admits it’s highly likely he would have ended up anywhere other than Wichita State in the end no matter who else reached out. The business school is very good, and Robarge treated the academic side with higher importance than the bowling side in his recruitment. He knew what he was getting into thanks to his brother’s experience there.

The Old Soul of Bowling
Everyone who knows Spencer Robarge will describe him as an “old soul.” And if they don’t, that means two things. Either they described him as “old school,” an “old guy” or some variation or they don’t really know him.
The reasons why are long and could fill a rolodex or Yellowpages. But here’s the story that best explains why, in the words of his mother and himself.
“He was on developmental Junior Team USA,” Susan starts, a story she’s clearly told time and time again. “So he had to go to bowling camp.” The camp was only about three days in Arlington, Texas, but there would be no way for Susan to casually contact Spencer, who was 16 years old at the time.
“He had an old tablet,” she explains. “It was ancient. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn't. We could message through Facebook when it worked. But I told him, you have to have a cell phone. He's like, ‘I don't want a cell phone.’ And I said, ‘I don't care. You're gonna get a cell phone.’ So, he reluctantly took the cell phone because I said I just want to know that you're okay, how your day went. I'm not gonna bug you. But you let me know. He reluctantly got it. We got the cheapest one that they made.”
Spencer is still not happy about it. “I hated it. Absolutely hated it,” he says. 
“I tell that one to a lot of people,” Susan says. “They just shake their heads and are like, ‘He didn't want a cell phone?’ I'm like, ‘He still doesn't want one. He's 21. He still doesn't want one.’”
Robarge hates technology. Well, hate might not be the right word. “I despise technology,” he says.
It’s not just new machines like iPhones, including the one he reluctantly keeps in his pocket, that he doesn’t like but also things that make up the current cultural zeitgeist.
“I would be okay with having a rotary phone on the wall,” Robarge declares. “I have Spotify but I don't have a song past 1985 on it,” Robarge exclaims. “I'd be okay if we set pins by hand. I'd be okay if we kept score by hand. I think we should,” Robarge seriously says. “I think I've watched one movie this decade,” Robarge claims. 
That movie was Top Gun: Maverick, which is, of course, the sequel to the 1986 classic. He did add he wants to see Oppenheimer, and admits he’d probably like it. “He’s probably like 60 or 70 in his head,” Wichita State teammate TJs Rock says.
There are advancements he does like. All of his classes are online this quarter, which allows him greater flexibility when traveling for tournaments. He watches a lot of old bowling on YouTube, including his favorite bowler Earl Anthony. “I don't hate the machines that we can set spares up on,” he adds. “I like that. But you could also get a person to do that. So it kind of goes either way.”
That love of the ‘70s and the decade seems to stem from Robarge driving around in his mother’s car growing up going to all those bowling tournaments, where they’d listen to ‘70s music all day and night. He jokes that he knows the words to every song from the decade and gets mad when he doesn’t know a song on Sirius XM radio’s ‘70s channel. “I know I've heard this probably 10 times,” he says.
He thinks this mindset helps him on the lanes because it provides him a unique approach. He loves watching and examining bowling from the 1960s and 1970s, which makes him look at things with a different lens. He can then apply those lessons to his own game and his teammates.
“I don't really do anything outside of bowling.” Robarge says. “If I'm not studying or doing schoolwork or whatever, I'm bowling.”
Under Pressure
Robarge's birthday is August 20, and growing up there was a tournament in St. Louis that tended to overlap with the date. The year he turned 15, his birthday was the last day of the tournament. Competitors bowled eight games of match play and then the top four advanced to a stepladder, Robarge recalled.
The first pair of the day, he shot 300. He then switched over to another pair and shot 300 and then 247. He moved over again and shot about 300 to give him a four-game total of 1,147.
“Before that, I would get up there and be a little nervous on the last shot,” Robarge says. “That was the first time I got up on the last ball and I was not shaking or nervous or anything. I was just like, ‘Alright, I got this.’ Now, you should be a little heightened on that last one. But not much more than any of the other ones.”
Robarge, who was wearing a red, white and blue shirt with blue plants patterned with white stars, won the tournament. “There's not a nervous bone in the kid's body. He's just stellar when it comes to pressure.,” Susan says. It was such a memorable performance that he wore that outfit all the time on Sunday for the next few years. He called it his “Sunday Tiger” look after Tiger Woods, who always wore a red shirt when competing on Sundays.
Those three 300 games on his 15th birthday are just a few of the 60 perfect games Robarge has bowled in his life so far. He’s closing in on overcoming his brother, who says he has an impressive 63 perfectos in his life.
“I know that it's gonna happen, and I'm gonna be happy for him because he puts in probably a little more work than I have,” Demore said. “I know that he can probably achieve a lot more than what I'm going to get to. But it's still a competition. I've still got him right now. So I'm going to try everything to keep him behind me but I know that day will come.”
The success Robarge has had could’ve gotten to his head years ago. In addition to the youth titles and the numerous 300 games and college accolades, Robarge has competed for Junior Team USA four straight years and finished third at the 2021 USBC Masters. But it hasn’t. 

“For as much success as Spencer's had, he doesn't really have like a big head at all,” Rock says. “He's not very self-absorbed. He's very open to new things. He's very open to learning from different people and he's just an all-around nice guy.”
Rock highlights Robarge’s ability to fit into the lineup anywhere the team needs as a key part to the team’s success. Sure, he can make any shot that comes his way and be “the guy.” But he also understands his teammates are great and can slot into different roles when the time calls for it. 
He highlighted a match at the 2022 Hoosier Classic when the Shockers were down 20 points. Robarge stepped up to the lanes with his lefty shot and fired the “nastiest messenger I've ever seen in my life.” The shot hit, and Robarge attempts to do the popular dance move called the griddy. “He doesn't know how to do it so like it was very bad. But we all knew the intent behind it. It had us laughing,” Rock says, calling it the most hilarious thing he’s ever seen. Wichita State won the match, and the tournament. Rock credits the dance, in part, for the team’s win.
“That was him trying to get the team going and he understands that,” Rock explains. “It's good that he understands that because of the position that he's in. Who he is and what he does for our team in general, it makes it good that he's able to understand what he needs to do for the team at that point in time.”
Looking Forward
The Old Soul sat in his Wichita State dorm suite common area in late September being asked about the future. The suite, which feature three other roommates and Robarge, was a utilitarian design with a Spartan layout. It was very much a boys dorm suite with no posters on the walls and nothing extra around for character. No television. No rug. No cozy fleece blankets on the couch.
His room wasn’t full of much excess. It was clean — the whole dorm building was because of a recent dorm check, a Wichita State policy where RA’s checked dorm rooms for cleanliness — and there wasn’t much on the walls. His window still had framed photos. There was a package of water and a 12-pack of his beloved Dr. Pepper on the ground. In one corner near his closet was a golf club and the adjacent corner held his desk. And, of course, the 30-plus bowling balls underneath his bed and in bags along one wall.
“I have certain goals of where I want to be and we're on track,” Robarge said. “The hope is that we stay in that direction and I can go bowl on tour.”
That’s still a long ways away. Robarge has two years of college bowling left and two degrees to nail down before embarking on a professional path.
Robarge once had visions of winning more PBA titles than Walter Ray Williams Jr., but he isn’t sure how feasible that is in modern bowling. He now hopes to become hall-of-fame eligible. But he holds the breaks on most other PBA goals, saying he needs to get one win out of the way before he starts dreaming.
There is one accomplishment he plans t pursue for the next few decades.
“I want to break the record for the most 300s and the most 800s,” Robarge said. “The reason that I think I have a chance is because I have obviously the best start out of anybody. I tied the 800 record. I broke the 300 record. I have a better start than just about anybody's ever had.”
There are ambitions outside of bowling, too. Down the line, he hopes to own a bowling center with Demore, who currently runs a pro shop in Missouri. 
But right now, his focus is on his classwork. Robarge says bowling takes a backseat to his academics, and he means it. He gets ahead on schoolwork and is diligent with his study habits. He recently added a second major of Resource Management to go along with his Business Management degree.
“I can look at bowling and go: ‘You know what? I want to win, I want to do this, I want to do that. But at the end of the day, it is what it is,’” Robarge said. “I think that's what motivates me even more to be a good bowler. I know where I've come from to get to where I'm at. People can either give me the credit for it or they cannot. It doesn't really matter to me. But I know where my journey has gone from here to here to here and all that. I think it's just an unwavering passion to be the best that I can be, not just in bowling but in anything that I do. I think that's what really motivates me to be who I am.”
Earlier in the day, Robarge was practicing at Shocker Sports Grill & Lanes in the Wichita State student union. They are different than they were when his brother was on campus. On the wall next to his right was a photo of the team’s 2023 title-winning team. In the trophy cabinet off the lanes towards the locker room was a collection of national title trophies. He walked through campus, too, pointing out all the new buildings on Wichita State’s ever-evolving grounds.
Just an old soul living in a world where the future is his for the taking.