Seniors Gabe Wunschel (left) and Bradley Baybutt (right) pose during Saturday’s NHIAA individual bowling tournament.

Keene High senior Gabe Wunschel wasn’t originally slated to compete in Saturday’s NHIAA state bowling individual tournament.

But he ended up earning second place.

He called it his most notable bowling milestone.

“Most definitely,” Wunschel said when asked if his second-place finish was the best of his bowling career. “That’s really the most significant achievement in the four years that I’ve bowled.”

Wunschel’s finish at this year’s individual bowling tournament is the best that the program has seen since 2017, when Garret Wilson placed first. The team also won the title that season.

“[Gabe] did phenomenal on Saturday,” said Keene head coach Aaron Moody in an email Tuesday. “I’m so very happy for him and how the season ended!”

Wunschel saw success throughout the regular season, but said he played more of a “cheerleader” role, providing positivity to his teammates, especially when a roll wouldn’t go their way.

“Gabe’s the kind of guy who looks out for the newer folks,” said Moody, the first-year head coach. “Very friendly. Helps people feel like they belong … addressing any questions or concerns they have.

“Just a nice kid who works really hard, during bowling, during school, in the community,” Moody added. “Really puts himself out there and just does a real nice job.”

But when two Keene bowlers couldn’t make the individual tournament, it was Wunschel’s opportunity to show how much he’s improved throughout his four years of high school bowling.

He also qualified for the state individual tournament his sophomore and junior years but did not get past the preliminary round either of those years. He said his jump this season shows his progress.

“I’ve definitely gotten better over the years; I’ll tell you that,” Wunschel said.

Wunschel said he started bowling when his mom signed him up for youth leagues at 7 or 8 years old, but, “I wasn’t very good,” he said with a laugh.

It was the individuality of the sport, combined with the team aspect, that kept Wunschel interested. And when he got to high school, he decided to pursue bowling competitively.

Now, he says he might try to go pro.

To do that, Wunschel said he needs to build up a reputation in the bowling community. And a second-place finish in the state is a big step in the right direction.

He wants to compete in more leagues and tournaments after high school to continue to build that rapport.

“I want to further my reputation and possibly even get to the level where Brad [Baybutt] (also a Keene High senior bowler) has gotten,” Wunschel said. “I want to get to Brad’s level in a sense.”

Baybutt, Keene’s other representative at this year’s state individual tournament, spent the season as the team’s captain.

He’s also a four-year varsity bowler for Keene.

“He’s been a great leader for the team,” Moody said. “It’s been great to see him develop.”

Baybutt’s bowling history goes way, way back.

He rolled his first bowling ball when he was 3 and spent his childhood bowling with his grandma. When he was 10, he started competing in his first youth leagues. By 11 years old, he was qualifying for national tournaments.

Baybutt has competed in Buffalo, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Dallas for national bowling tournament.

He qualified for the national tournament last year, which was to be held in Las Vegas, but the COVID pandemic put an end to that.

“Last year, I really felt — especially during February and early March — it was probably one of the best points in my bowling career. I really felt like I was at my peak,” Baybutt said, adding that he was, of course, disappointed that he couldn’t compete.

Baybutt was a sophomore during the 2019 high school bowling season, when the Blackbirds finished second in the state as a team. He said it was one of his most memorable seasons.

“That season we had such a mindset of going to the finals to begin with because we were such a good team,” Baybutt said. “I remember, all through the season, just watching everyone progress. It was always so fun to see someone bowl a new high score.

“Even though we didn’t win the finals, … winning all of our games to get there, that was such a really positive moment for the team,” he added.

But this year, in the midst of the COVID pandemic, was unforgettable too.

“Even though the team is quite young, we seemed to be so positive, and we always kept our energy up throughout the whole season,” Baybutt said. “We really seemed to really respond to each other well.”

Moody, who’s known Baybutt “forever” from the bowling community, said Baybutt was a key leader to keep the team grounded during what was one of the strangest seasons in history.

“Brad’s a guy that loves to bowl and always shows up strong and ready to go,” Moody said. “And he’s been very consistent at a high level. There’s always room to grow and he’s continuing to do that.”

Both Baybutt and Wunschel want to continue bowling in the future, whatever that might look like down the road.

No matter what the future holds for the two seniors, Moody said they will always have a home with the Keene bowling team.

Chris Detwiler can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1411, or cdetwiler@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Detwiler.