HAMMOND | Saturday was the start of a busy month of bowling for John Riffle.
Other than the traditional holiday season, there is no other annual stretch as hectic as this one for the 41-year-old Highland man.
On Saturday, he punched out of his job as a service technician at Arcelor Mittal's Burns Harbor plant at 7:15 a.m., and by 11 a.m. he was sleeplessly waiting in line to register as a walk-in for the first squad of the 63rd annual Times Individual Bowling Classic present by Pepsi at Olympia Lanes. He was set to nap after his four afternoon games and return to work by 7 p.m. for another 12-hour midnight shift.
"I bowl what I can, when I can," he said. "It's going to be another typical end-of-the-season bowling run."
The 1994 Class A champ, who famously edged his own father, Jim, to capture the final Class A title for the Times Classic at Bowl-Era, won't be able to join a slew of former Times Classic champs next weekend as Olympia GM Mike Kozy hosts his annual star-studded squad.
On Wednesday, Riffle will depart for the USBC nationals in Baton Rouge, La. He'll bowl through Saturday in the singles, doubles and team events. His teammates are local standouts Mark Millsap, Don Draia, Mike Svilar and Lou Kwell.
His work schedule of rotating 12-hour shifts precludes him from bowling full-time in any leagues (he subs whenever possible), so this is his best chance to take the skills he's had since becoming a scratch bowler at age 15, resharpen them and make some cash.
"It's always a work in progress," Riffle said. "I've been bowling for 30 years, and I'm still learning about the game and myself."
This year's USBC Blue oil pattern for the Times Classic, the longest-running newspaper-sponsored bowling tourney in the Midwest, left Riffle with a suspicion that lower scores will make the top 16 in each of the seven classes. He was not happy with his first few games Saturday and vowed to return for the final weekend of qualifying.
He'll also bowl in the second annual Times Masters Classic on June 2 at Olympia.
Riffle was fifth in Class A last year.
"To win this you have to bowl good every round," he said. "This is the one everyone wants to win. I've been fortunate enough to win one, but I want to win one here (at Olympia)."
It's rare for a former Class A champ to show up for the first squad.
Most are fashionably late for qualifying, which continues today (11:30 a.m., 3 p.m.) and the next two Saturdays (11:30 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and May 20. Semifinals are June 3, and the finals are June 10.
The biggest change in this year's incarnation of the event is the inclusion of high school bowlers. The USBC approved the entrance of prep bowlers and college bowlers who still qualify as youths by USBC rules, as their potential winnings can go into their USBC Smart Account as scholarship money down the road. No high-schoolers entered Saturday morning's competition.
Another former champ in Saturday's early crowd was 2009 Class C champ Tyrus Bester, a Bloom Twp. grad whose average now puts him in Class B.
His 666 series Saturday became a 705 with handicap, and he returned to compete in his second round of qualifying Saturday at 3 p.m.
Bester has bowled in this event four times and placed in the top four each try, taking second, first and fourth in Class C and then fourth last year in Class B.
"I always play tournaments in this house, and I know the employees are good people," Bester said. "The tournament is always fun and fair."
Bester noted the shot is tougher than last year's, but he enjoys the fair practice of stripping and re-oiling the lanes after each squad.
"I feel really good," Bester said. "I'm really positive that I'll have a good chance (to make the semifinals)."