Everybody in the packed East Islip Lanes pauses as the PA announcer congratulates Steve Cole for bowling a 300 game . . . two strikes too soon. Among the crowd of about 200, laughter is mixed with the groans of those fretting a jinx. Amused and a bit bemused, Cole shrugs, sets his ball down and takes a celebratory round of high-fives.
"Whoops," the announcer says a few seconds later. "Never mind."
But it's better early than never for Cole, who, unfazed, rolls his 11th straight strike and then the 12th. Now it's official - the East Islip senior's first perfect game.
With his submarine delivery (knees dipped low, arm dropped to his ankle and a soft release), he goes on to throw 18 straight strikes. The joint is rollicking as he's rolling in a 3-0 win over North Babylon on Thursday. East Islip (13-0), the League I champion, begins its quest for the county title Feb. 2.
"To do this in my last home match makes it more special," said Cole, whose 779 series pushed his average to 219.92. "I started thinking about  in the sixth frame . . . The [premature] announcement was kind of a good thing, though. I laughed and it kept everyone loose."
His confidence and composure doesn't waver, his father, Tom, said. "He's definitely got a swagger."
About 20 feet behind Cole's lane, taped to the door of the ladies room is a picture of him in jeans and a striped Polo with a sign below that says, "Call me," followed by his phone number.
"Everybody loves Steve Cole!" he said in a form of humorous hubris. And that line, so often used, has been turned into a refrain by his teammates.
There are posters along the walls - the girls make ones for the boys and vice versa. But there's one in red for John Knieriemen that reads, "We made this so John wouldn't cry."
"We hadn't done one for John and he kept whining about it," said Tara Ernst, one of the stars of the girls team. "So we threw that up for him."
Knieriemen is the county leader with a 231.46 average, has 29 career 300 games and is within reach of a 232.64, the single-season record set by Bay Shore's Jon Trzcinski in 2008. But he isn't above getting pranked.
"That's what we do here," said Knieriemen, who rolled a 739. "We're all friends, we all hang out and we all love messing with each other."
It's not quite the cast of "The Big Lebowski," but the cornucopia of personalities form a laid-back "goofball" bunch. Knieriemen is "The Class Clown," Cole is "The Pretty Boy," Bobby Martin is "The Studious One," Ed Tuskan is "Mr. Serious," Dan DeSimone is "The Outgoing One," Joe Griffin is "The Lady's Man" and Kevin Bouza, a freshman with a 200-plus average, is "Baby Legend."
The Redmen, who won states in 2008 and lost in the counties to Sachem North last season, retool on-the-fly, recruiting and developing fifth graders. They've got five seniors now, which means eighth-graders Nick Paulino, Jacob Klein and Jonathan Cheadle are next. This is the indoctrination - getting used to bowling at this level, with those crowds . . . and the high jinks.
The tenor changes only when they talk about Sandy Catalano, an assistant and coach Rick Papandrea's best friend who died of cancer last February. They've dedicated this season to him.
But they've established such a loose environment that the alley takes the ambience of a family picnic, with a pot luck of parent-made pastries in abundance and Tuskan's dad supplying the Starburst and soda.
All this, Papandrea said, helps to allay the pressure of wearing the bull's-eye with 33 straight league wins and a Suffolk-best 1,105 team average.
"With every win the pressure builds," the coach said, "but it's something we embrace. We have fun with it."
As they do with most things.