Liz Johnson, one of the two women competing in this weekend’s made-for-television Elias Cup tournament at Bayside Bowl, wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

Her four teammates on the nascent Portland Lumberjacks all had been at Bayside a year ago for the inaugural Professional Bowlers Association Maine Event, as part of the Pittsburgh Jack Rabbits.

“I heard nothing but great things about this,” Johnson said. “I watched part of this show last year when it was on, and you could see the craziness and the excitement.”

When Johnson stepped up for her first ball Saturday, the crowd erupted in cheers louder than for any other bowler. All the local leagues at Bayside are coed, and many in the crowd of at least 200 that packed in behind and to the sides of the two lanes lit up by ESPN’s lights were women, so having Johnson on the home team was something special.

Especially when her first ball turned out to be a strike.

“The electricity, the crowd, it was just amazing,” Johnson said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and made many, many TV shows. But you can’t make enough TV shows to prepare you for something like this. It was just one of a kind. The excitement, all the fans yelling and chanting. It was just awesome.”

As the second of the five Lumberjacks, Johnson bowled the second and seventh frames under the Baker format used in the tournament. Her second ball left an unfortunate 7-10 split, but she picked up the 7 pin and the Lumberjacks, after sweating out a dramatic 10th frame, edged the Philadelphia Hit Men 192-191 before cruising to a lopsided victory in the second game to advance to Sunday’s semifinal match against the New York City WTT KingPins.

Sunday’s other semifinal pits the Motown Muscle against the Dallas Strikers. The final is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Bayside. Tickets have long been sold out, but ESPN plans to air the whole tournament in four successive two-hour shows on Sundays at 1 p.m. beginning April 17.

Viewers will see wildly enthusiastic spectators, many holding signs or Big Head foam board cutouts attached to sticks. They will see green plaid, including a bearded guy in a vest, cartoonishly puffed up arms, a blaze orange wool cap and wielding a foam hatchet.

“This is the biggest party in Portland this weekend and I feel like it’s the most under-the-radar party as well,” said Luke Behrends, the man behind the mascot. “There are very few people who know how much fun is happening within these walls right now.”

Behrends, a native of Minnesota, moved to Portland with his wife a little over a year ago. They began subbing in the Bowl Portland league at Bayside and wound up at the first Maine Event last April.

“We met some of our best friends here,” Behrends said. “You don’t come across this type of experience very often. It was very much a community. Everybody has trucker handles.”

Indeed, Behrends goes by Magnus Van Magnusen, his wife by Red Fury. The graphic artist responsible for the 19 oversized heads on sticks? Her name is Morgan DiPietro but her bowling friends know her as Lala.

In addition to some of the more well-known bowlers such as Pete Weber, Jason Belmonte and Walter Ray Williams, this year’s crop of oversized heads included Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts (a fine bowler in his own right), Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, a bespectacled squirrel (for E.J. Tackett, the only pro to roll a perfect 300 in last year’s event) and Hollywood-inspired characters from the bowling films “Kingpin” and “The Big Lebowski.”

“Everyone here loves bowling and is excited to have the Michael Jordans of bowling here in Portland, Maine,” said DiPietro during a break in the first quarterfinal Saturday between New York and the two-time defending champion Silver Lake Atom Splitters. “We get to hang out with the pros. Relationships were built last year so when they come back, we’re catching up with them and we just continue to have a good time.”

DiPietro bowled in one of the two pro-am events Thursday. A draw party is scheduled Monday night for the two-day, 64-bowler head-to-head elimination tournament that begins Tuesday morning.

“I thought I was going to have to drive to New Jersey to experience this,” said Mike Thibeault, also known as Tango, who helped DiPietro assemble the foam cutouts Friday. “Now it’s five minutes from my house. It’s a bucket-list item. I always wanted to do it and it fell into my lap, almost.”

Fans began tailgating shortly before 8 a.m. Saturday outside Bayside Bowl. The Colby College Woodsmen’s Team came down for a demonstration of ax throwing, chainsaw skills and crosscutting. A giant inflatable Shipyard beer can overlooked the festivities. The Portland brewer is the sponsor of the Lumberjacks franchise, assembled solely for this unique event.

“They are so passionate about just having fun, and having fun while bowling,” said Carolyn Dorin-Ballard, manager of the KingPins, about the spectators, many of them sipping from plastic cups. “It brings such an exciting chemistry to the event that I think bowling needs. And the players tend to feed off that, which is great.”

“This is our best crowd of the year,” said Weber, subject of a ESPN 30 for 30 short titled The Bad Boy of Bowling. “I wish every crowd was like this.”

 


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