How a lifelong passion brings major tournaments to town

WINTER HAVEN – The best and the brightest bowlers in the state – and the youngest – have been descending on Cypress Lanes in Winter Haven for the Florida youth bowling championship, commonly known as “The Pepsi Tournament,” for more than a month now. Over five weekends, from the end of March throughout April, more than 3,000 participants will visit the Winter Haven bowling Mecca to participate in the 2017 Pepsi Florida State Youth Championship of the Florida State United States Bowling Congress Youth Bowling Association.

While this isn’t a new event for Cypress Lanes, they recently beat out three different Florida destinations in the final round of proposals in Ocala, thanks to the sales effort and a presentation by the staff from Polk County Sports Marketing.

“We could not have been awarded this event without the support of the Polk County Sports Marketing team,” said Michael Ducat, the owner of Cypress Lanes. “They were critical in us getting the event.”

Leading that team was Ryan Ritchie, a sales and events representative with Polk County Sports Marketing, whose connection to the sport has made bringing bowling events to Polk a natural fit.

“A friend of my uncle’s was our town’s high school coach,” said Ritchie. “He asked me if I wanted to be on the high school team. I was in seventh grade.”

Like most kids, Ritchie took to bowling after watching a parent – in his case, his mother – participate in the sport while growing up in Fulton, New York, just outside of Syracuse. Little did anyone realize that he’d go on to letter in the sport for six years.

“Bowling has been good to me. My peers voted me in as the president of our youth league, which taught me leadership skills and responsibility at an early age,” he said. “It was an honor to be chosen to serve.”

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It was also an honor, he said, to bowl in the state championships his senior year, a feat that was accomplished by him qualifying after rolling 16 strikes in a row.

“Every high school athlete wants to participate at that level,” he said. “I won the section three championship during my senior year of high school – which is like a regional championship. It was all of Onondaga County, which is really the greater Syracuse area.”

And while an injury ended Ritchie’s chance of bowling in college, it didn’t blunt his passion for the game – a passion that was still evident when a local bowling legend walked into the PCSM office in Auburndale.

Dewey Kirkland dedicated his life to a few things – his family, his job, and bowling. According to some, that list may be out of order.

For years Kirkland not only bowled as an amateur around the United States, he and his wife also coached bowling at numerous lanes. He was active in the Orange Belt Bowling Association, a body that governs bowling, for years and was known as their “go to” guy. He held every office the association had, and even formed a youth travel league.

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A year ago, Kirkland walked into the PCSM offices and met Ritchie, a man half his age with a similar passion for the sport. The bond was instant. Dewey’s goal was to bring the state bowling association’s annual convention – known as the Florida State Bowling Association Jamboree – to Polk County. But before the final presentation, Dewey passed away suddenly during a bowling tournament in Reno, Nevada.

“If it wasn’t for Dewey we wouldn’t have gotten it,” said Ritchie. “He was a champion through and through to make it happen. I simply went to the Orange Belt board and told them that having the jamboree and the tournament here was what Dewey wanted. It was clear. The 2018 Open Championship is dedicated to Dewey Kirkland and his passion for the sport.”

Due to their efforts, the jamboree will come to Lakeland in October, bringing with it 200 adults who will golf, bowl and dine in Lakeland over the weekend. Following that will be the adult Florida USBC Open Championship in 2018, which will fill at least two facilities at 40 lanes a piece.

“That’s about 5,000 participants over a six weekend period during May and June,” said Ritchie. “It’s a lot of people, and their families, coming to Polk County. And none of it would have happened without Dewey.”