In late December before the holiday tournaments, Mount Carmel senior Jacquan O'Bryant and some teammates approached bowling coach Steve Gorches with a suggestion.
Put junior Ryan Hernandez at the anchor position.
Gorches heeded the request, and what everyone knew became much more apparent. Hernandez was the best and most clutch bowler on the team.
Although the Caravan did not advance out of the sectional as a team, Hernandez is heading to this weekend's state finals at St. Clair Bowl in O'Fallon individually.
Hernandez slumped in the middle of his sectional tournament, but while most people coasted in the last of six games, he picked up spare after spare to push himself up among the non-qualifiers and ultimately earned an at-large berth to the state finals. He made it by four pins.
Although Gorches phoned him Sunday night to say he had checked the scores, Hernandez nonetheless stalked the IHSA website looking for the official tourney field announcement. When he saw it Monday after school, he was relieved.
"I was speechless for a couple minutes, and then if finally hit me that I was going to state for something that I love to do - to bowl," Hernandez said. "I worked hard all season, and it was my goal. I knew I could do it."
At the holiday tournament at Morgan Park, Hernandez had the first nine strikes in a game, and he was team MVP of both that tourney and one hosted by Brother Rice.
A third-year varsity bowler and a Caravan golfer and volleyball player, Hernandez will make his first state finals appearance in any sport. The support of classmates and faculty at Carmel has been nothing short of remarkable, he said.
"A lot of people are saying, 'Put yourself and our school in the newspaper for winning state and make a name for yourself,'" Hernandez said. "With all the congratulations I've got, I just feel happy that I'm being noticed and other people are congratulating me for my accomplishment."
Hernandez's theology teacher, Dara Behzadi, an avid Caravan sports fan, has used class time to offer intentions for Hernandez during open prayer in class.
A bowler since age 4, the Glenwood resident and product of St. Paul's Lutheran School in Chicago Heights practices twice a week at Lynwood Bowl to hone his mental game.
"You can't coach intestinal fortitude, and Ryan has that," Gorches said. "People can tell you how to be clutch, but there's a difference between hearing it and going out and performing.
"(At the sectional) he could have easily said, ‘I'm out of it,' and he didn't. He never gave up."
Mount Carmel has sent one individual to the state finals each of the past three seasons, but no one has made the initial cut. Hernandez has the capability to rack up points on the highly conducive oil patterns at state, but he knows he has this weekend to learn to adjust to the lanes and surroundings and come back stronger as a title contender next year.
"I'm just going out to have fun," Hernandez said. "One of my main goals is just to make the cut. To do that I'll have to shoot over 200 in all six games. I know that'll give me a fighting chance. Maybe some kid will have a little better day than me, but I'll know I did the best I could."