Briarcliffe's Castellano second in nation

Handout photo of Briarcliffe bowler Jack Castellano.

Handout photo of Briarcliffe bowler Jack Castellano. (Credit: Handout)

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For those who don't closely follow college bowling, three guesses: The owner of the nation's best average differential competes for what school?

(Cue "Final Jeopardy!" music.)

Round of applause for the folks who came up with Briarcliffe College. Yes, Briarcliffe in Patchogue.

The bowler is Jack Castellano, whose 220.54 average is second overall among college bowlers, just .19 behind Fresno State's Greg Geering. And Castellano's plus-40.34 differential (the difference between his and the field) is the highest.

Briarcliffe has built a strong program that's ranked 22nd nationally. Still, it's a bit of a surprise that a small-school talent has excelled to this level.

"It shows you don't have to come from a big-name school," the junior said. "It's heart."

It can't be that alone; there's also the superb talent that began being honed not long after Castellano was out of the stroller.

He comes from a "bowling family" (not unlike many kids in Centereach). His father, Thomas, used to compete professionally and, when Jack was 3, his mom had him toddling about the lanes and pitching a ball not much smaller than himself. By 5, Castellano didn't need the bumpers anymore and at 8, he bowled his first 300 game in practice.

It was one of those mouth-agape moments that left spectators asking questions like: "He did what? . . . How old is he?"

"That's when I knew I could be really good," Castellano, 21, said. He's since rolled 18 perfect games, including two back-to-back in a tournament in December as part of his sixth 800 series.

"He was always that good," said Briarcliffe coach Steve Tisman, who's known Castellano since he was 12.

In 11th grade, Castellano led Middle Country to a fourth-place finish in counties, but the following year he joined a money league, which made him ineligible for scholastic competition. "I felt I could make more money that way, competing with adults," he said. "I didn't regret it. It was the right choice for me at the time."

Briarcliffe came about, he said, because his sister, Theresa, was a member of the NJCAA title-winning team in 2004. Castellano, who aspires to become a forensic pathologist, "was also attracted to the criminal justice program."

Castellano upped his average from last year's 208, is a near shoo-in for All-American, and is in contention for Bowler of the Year. Especially impressive considering his best high school average was a 212 and bowlers' college numbers typically dip because of the less favorable oil patterns.

Tisman helped refine Castellano's delivery, "slowing down his feet," and making him more deliberate, but the key to his game is power - an abundance of it. He attacks the pins with a relatively long backswing and a violent release his teammates marvel at.

"I've been a power player my whole life because I was a bigger kid," Castellano said. "I'm 270 [pounds] so I generate a lot of power from my legs."

But it's the finer points he's worked on this season. He reads lanes better, improved his spare shooting and, according to the coach, has matured.

"He's taken on a leadership role, which was kind of an eye-opener for me," said Tisman, whose team will compete in Sectionals on March 12. "His first two years, he was kind of standoffish. Now, his attitude is great. He keeps everyone calm and the guys all look up to him."

Castellano acknowledges the change and said his role is something he had often discussed with Tisman. "I became a better person," he said. "I put more of myself into it . . . Being a leader has helped me improve, too. You concentrate more. I think I bowl better with the pressure of knowing that I'm looked to as a leader."

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