Four to Watch

By Jenn Robach 

At just 15 years old, Larielle Tharps is rewriting the playbook for teenage success. The year 2023 was a defining chapter in her story, which began with a hard-earned U15 Junior Gold title, followed by her first 300 game on a sport pattern and high school district honors. She capped off the year with a triumphant Florida State Girls championship, and she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. 

The future is bright for this young star, and she has her eyes set on unlocking a slew of new achievements. She hopes to compete at Junior Team USA Trials and secure another Junior Gold win, and those around her know that these goals are within reach. The Orlando, Florida, native has been working under PWBA legend Pat Costello for the past four years, and each day, she is looking more and more like current PWBA pro Stefanie Johnson, whom Costello coached years prior. 

“Larielle’s personality is wonderful, it is something so special,” Costello said of the young star. “She’s warm, caring, funny, and she reminds me of my Stefanie Johnson. They’re just fun-loving, great people, who have big hearts. They’re very much alike, and it's overwhelming to me that this is all happening in my life again.” 

When Costello and Tharps first crossed paths, the Gold coach was impressed. She approached the young star to introduce herself and learn more about her, and to her surprise, she was only in the sixth grade. 

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. It was at that very moment that Costello took Tharps under her wing, to mentor her and help guide her through all the challenges that come with being a successful bowler at such a young age, and so far, she has exceeded all of her expectations. 

“She’s going to go far,” Costello said. “She’s athletic, she’s dedicated, she has a lot of determination, and she has the desire to excel. And to only be [15]! I always have to remind myself that she is only [15]!” 

Two years before securing the 2023 Junior Gold win, Tharps finished runner-up in the U12 division. She had to move up to U15 the next year due to her age. While that was an adjustment, Tharps and Costello put in the work, which eventually led to the much-deserved title. 

“It meant a lot to me because when I was in U12, it was my first time bowling in a sport-shot tournament so I wasn’t really worried about where I finished. But then as time went on, I practiced more and wanted to be able to make it onto the TV show again and when I did, it was a great experience,” Tharps recalled. “I really tried to put in the work and get my mental game together to try and win, and when I did, I was shocked. I was very surprised.” 

The two-time Storm Youth Championships titlist comes from a long line of bowlers. Her grandparents bowled. Her mother bowls, and her sister, Brielle Dean, even bowled in college at Southern A&M University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She would spend her days traveling, immersed in a college bowling atmosphere that made her want to pursue her own career.  

Her inspiration? Her family, especially her grandparents. They are the ones who got her into bowling and, since then, they have traveled to all of her tournaments, cheering her on from the stands. Her grandparents are joined by her mother, Pam, who couldn’t be any prouder of all she has accomplished. 

“It's amazing to watch her,” Pam said. “She started off as that little backup-ball thrower and has grown so much. She has worked very hard. She is continuing to raise the bar and move forward and I am so proud of her.”  

It’s no surprise that Tharps’ passion on the lanes can also be found in her other hobbies. When she’s not on the lanes, or doing school work, she can be found in the kitchen, baking. If she could compete on any show, it would be Chopped —  the Food Network series in which chefs are given random ingredients and tasked with making a Michelin Star-caliber meal for the judges. 

“I’ve always wanted to be on Chopped,” she said, adding that it is the “competition setting” mixed with all the random ingredients that she finds the most appealing. 

As for the future, there is no ceiling to this central-Florida phenom’s potential. Tharps has plans to bowl in college, but that is still a few years away. For now, she is focused on improving her game, both mentally and physically, while adding even more titles to her résumé.     

“She’s very smart, and just a great athlete to work with. It makes you as a coach know that what you’re doing is the right thing when you have athletes like Larielle. It makes you want to do it more,” Costello added. 

By Emil Williams Jr.


Powerful, determined and unintimidated, Santtu Tahvanainen
is poised to add his name to a legacy of great Finnish stars.

Entering the 2023 Professional Bowlers Association season, Finland’s Santtu Tahvanainen had one goal in mind: to prove to himself and others that his 2022 PBA Rookie of the Year campaign wasn’t a mirage.

Well, after making four shows in 2023 — including a fifth-place finish at a major in the PBA World Championship — the 27-year-old two-handed righty proved he was more than worthy of his award. Last season’s results make Tahvanainen a player to watch in 2024, which could see him win his first career PBA title.

“It feels good that I'm showing up on the stepladders and TV shows,” said Tahvanainen, just prior to his opening round match with Jason Belmonte at last season’s PBA World Championship. “It's not a question mark anymore for many people at least. Of course, there's some people who say it doesn't count because I’m a two-hander, but they are fans as well.”

Tahvanainen, who follow sin the footsteps of legendary fellow Finns Mika Koivuniemi and Osku Palermaa, advanced to the TV finals in three of the four World Series of Bowling XIV events, adding a fourth-place finish in the Scorpion Championship and fifth place in the Shark Championship. His lowest finish at the WSOB was ninth at the Cheetah Championship.

And, for those wondering if it was just his love of Bowlero Wauwatosa during the WSOB week that propelled him to much success, two months earlier he notched his highest finish of the season at the Wichita Classic (third) and followed that by just missing the stepladder at the Jackson Classic, finishing sixth.

EJ Tackett, who won the World Championship as one of his five titles and two majors enroute to being named the PBA Player of the Year in 2023, got to see Tahvanainen up close as both a peer and competitor. The two players are teammates under the Motiv brand, where Tackett has been a mainstay for years. 

He was initially taken aback by the power and strength of Tahvanainen, whose bowling ball produces such a violent reaction when his equipment meets the headpin. Tahvanainen’s overall hook rating out-distances that of Tackett, which sometimes even leaves Tackett wondering, “Why can’t I get my ball to do that?” as he watches the young Finn compete.

Tackett can see the potential and believes the sky's the limit for Tahvanainen as he continues to understand bowling on tour, which is such a different experience. 

“Yeah, he's definitely someone who can really overpower the lanes and conditions,” Tackett said. “He's very strong and can kind of do anything you want to a bowling ball. But, once he really learns how to bowl on the PBA Tour and learns all the little nuances that go along with it, I think he's definitely going to have some success.”

Tackett, who is a sure-fire future PBA Hall of Famer, believes there might even be a hall-of-fame nod in the future for Tahvanainen if he continues to excel and add to his game like the greats often do.

“He's just very powerful. He's kind of different from someone like Jason or Simo (Anthony Simonsen). You know, they're really, really good. They're unbelievably talented and they can do anything to a bowling ball. But Santtu? When he throws it, it just looks different because he is so powerful. 

“When he learns a little bit more of the finesse side of things, and still, you know, keeps himself and his base of that power player, I think he will have a lot of success. And, I think we saw early on in Belmo’s career it was kind of the same thing, right? He was very powerful, threw it hard and hooked it a lot. But when Belmo learned a little bit of finesse, that's when Jason became Jason Belmonte. And, I don't know if Santtu could be a Jason Belmonte, but I certainly think that he could be a hall of famer.”

Brett Spangler, the ball rep for the Motiv brand since 2010, knew how special Tahvanainen could be after seeing him compete in the first squad of the first event at his first WSOB event in 2022. Spangler called his bosses at Motiv and told them, “There’s a kid I’ve never seen before and he’s really good.”

Eventually, Tahvanainen would sign with the brand, and Spangler began to peel back the layers of just what makes the 27-year-old Finn special. Spangler saw it firsthand at the WSOB where total pinfall, as opposed to bracket play, determined spots on the shows, and “there wasn’t a single show that he made easily.”

If Tahvanainen wins in 2024, his mental toughness will be one major reason why.

“Beyond having just wild, natural ability, he’s also fearless,” Spangler said. “He really shined at the World Series. It was genuinely the most grueling event I think I’ve seen because you couldn’t take a single game off. It was total pinfall for each show, and then all of those carried over to the big show. He had to show up the last couple of games of every single event, and that's not something you normally see out of somebody who is in their second year out there.”

By Jenn Robach 

A Born Leader

While Nate Trentler’s talent speaks for itself, 
it’s his gift for leadership that shines brightest.

Three years ago, Brian Rickert set out to create a powerhouse team at Milligan University, where he brought a vision to craft a top-10-level program in a Christian environment. He found the perfect match in Nate Trentler — a player who not only met the mold but exceeded his expectations and did so, importantly, both on and off the lanes.

Hailing from Baltimore, Maryland, Trentler left the city life behind for rural Tennessee, trading buildings for mountains, and solo success for the hustle and bustle of the team atmosphere in which he has shined. 

“As soon as I got out of the car and looked around, saw the mountains and scenery, I knew I would end up here and I hadn’t even gone into the buildings yet. I knew that I was meant to be here,” he said. 

He has already collected all-tournament honors this season, but has his eyes set on the bigger picture — a national championship.  

“It's a unique situation he came into. He’s had the chance to come in and be a leader from the beginning. The guys look up to him. He just brings a natural competitive desire that I think [the team] reacts to. It gets them motivated,” Coach Rickert said of the freshman. 

He went on to say that Trentler has an “innate desire to succeed.” Which is to say that he embodies exactly the attitude he looks for in new recruits. 

“I wanted to get players who not only have that desire but also want to play for a group, not themselves. These first three years, we’ve had more success than I could have imagined, knowing it takes time to build a program and find the right kids. Being that we’re a Christian University as well, you have to find kids who want that college experience through that lens compared to what they see at public schools,” Coach Rickert added. 

Trenler came into the program with a history unlike any of his teammates. He has multiple PBA Regional and Storm Youth Championship titles, but his goals are no longer self-oriented. 

“I want to see the team make the ITC finals. That’s the goal, to win a national championship,” he said of the future. 

Trentle is already one of the top freshmen in the country, so it won't be surprising if he takes the ISCs by storm this year. But that’s not his concern. As a leader, he just wants to make sure he can be the best for those who surround him.

“For any person who is in a mode in which where you’re not just worrying about yourself, it's how you portray yourself to other people that matters,” he explained. “It can be a lot, and sometimes it is a lot. It's not easy to be the person everyone looks up to because we’re all human, we make mistakes, and I’ve felt adversity my entire life. But I’ve always persevered. I always follow the rule, ‘Treat someone how you want to be treated.’ I know it's cliché, but it's true. I’m more concerned about the team aspect. Making ISCs or winning would be nice, but the next goal is to achieve a national championship.” 

Trentler’s dream of winning an ITC title is not his alone. His teammates, including junior Cameron Shockey, are behind him in this pursuit. They admire his personality on the lanes and his dedication, but ultimately it is his leadership that will help propel them to triumphant heights. 

“On the lanes, Nate is very poised, you can always tell during competition that there’s this switch [that flips] and his mentality is just focus. I’ve never seen a bowler who has been as focused,” Cameron said. 

“Anytime we get down, he’s our backbone. He is the person that is going to pick everyone up when we’re down and get everyone going again. He is there for everyone, he’s never focused on himself, he is always watching everyone and helping. If someone needs a line, Nate is there.”

Cameron went on to compare his teammate to 7x Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, calling him “a good leader” who “elevates people” and adding that he is only going to get better. 

"Just his ability to get pumped up, and to pump everyone up in low moments, which is key in college bowling. It’s not the high moments that get you places, it’s getting through the low moments the best you can. And I can just tell, going from last year to this year, having him [here], it just goes so much better,” Cameron continued. 

Growing up, Trentler never planned on bowling. But, at the age of two, his aunt got him into duckpin bowling. Around the age of nine, he then started traditional bowling, and three years later, he was competing in national tournaments. The rest is history. 

“It's been a progression, but over the last 5-6 years, bowling has been my life,” he said. 

By Emil Willaism Jr.

Choices of a Champion

Lauren Russo has driven many recent changes in her life, 
and the next one just may be a first PWBA Tour title.

Everything is a choice.

The majority of people would agree with the above statement, as life typically is defined, for better or worse, by the choices we make. As 2023 came to a close, few people could express that sentiment with more conviction than Lauren Russo.

Whether it was choosing to become a coach for the first time, choosing to marry the love of her life, or choosing to grow closer to her peers, it was a banner year for the player formerly known as Lauren Pate.

The 27-year-old seems ready for a breakout season on the 2024 PWBA Tour, which could result in her first trip to the winner’s circle and the chance to choose where she places the trophy alongside some other recent awards.

A major piece of her 2023 puzzle was taking on a new role as the head women’s bowling coach at Maryville University in Maryville, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb. It was an opportunity filled with new challenges for the former two-time national champion as a player with McKendree, which “opened her eyes and changed the way she looked at things.” 

“I had to play a different role that I've never played before in my life, and it kind of propelled me to just bowl with more confidence,” Russo said. “I didn't know that I was good at this (coaching) until the year kept going on and on.”

Maryville’s 2023 season resulted in Russo garnering two end-of-season coaching awards — Division II/III National Tenpin Coaches Association Coach of the Year and Great Lakes Valley Conference Coach of the Year. The Saints were selected for the NCAA Tournament for the first time and finished as the women’s runner-up at the 2023 Intercollegiate Team Championships.

“Winning the coach of the year accolade really put the cherry on top of what the season was like, and I just kind of carried that momentum [into the PWBA season] with me.”

When Russo ran into trouble with lane play or ball motion on tour, she often put herself into the shoes of her players and asked, “What would I tell my girls if they were experiencing this?” That type of self-talk, and the understanding that seven wonderful student-athletes were always watching their coach, kept her motivated all season on the PWBA Tour.

“I found myself doing that probably every time I bowled, because there were times when I was stuck and I just didn't know what to do,” Russo said. “But I would play the roles in my head and it worked. Watching women’s ball motion is obviously different from watching men, so being able to read the lanes differently and watching ball motion were things I carried over with me as well.”

Russo’s husband, Matt, is not only her new life partner, but also her assistant coach at Maryville. After a 3 1/2-year engagement, partially delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Team USA teammates tied the knot in Negril, Jamaica, on Lauren’s birthday (Oct. 16).

Matt, who owns one career title on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour, has had a first-class seat to Lauren’s development for years now. 

He’s not surprised by anything his wife has done, but he does believe making a switch to a different ball brand “opened up a larger selection of bowling balls with different reactions” for Lauren, which kept her confidence high as she navigated the sometimes-grueling conditions on the PWBA Tour.

The recent growth of her relationship with Team USA teammates Bryanna Coté and Jordan Richard has provided additional support and growth opportunities. 

“I would say changing brands and a fit change were two things that kind of opened her eyes to her being more successful,” Matt said. “But, Bry and JoJo, and the friendship and bond they have created, I think is incredible. It's nice to see Lauren have people like that in her corner who are making her better and make it a little bit easier out there.”

When Lauren wins her first title, there won’t be a dry eye in the bowling center. Whether it’s Matt, whom Lauren believes “will be crying like he was when I walked down the aisle,” or her collegiate coach turned mentor and friend, 15-time PWBA champion Shannon O’Keefe. 

O’Keefe has advised Lauren as she navigates the new balancing act of the life of a coach and professional athlete. A life that O’Keefe has made look easy to the naked eye.

“Lauren has this internal desire to be great,” O’Keefe said. “A deep-rooted confidence in who she is as a person and what she’s capable of. When you wrap that all together and put a little bow on it with hard work — the results will follow.

“She is the first girl who ever committed to me in my college career, so we have a bond that most don’t understand. Lauren has turned into an extremely incredible friend, and when she wins that first title, it’ll be all those years of hard work coming to the surface. I’ll be right there alongside her crying with complete happiness watching my friend and kid’s dreams become a reality.”