PEORIA — More than 300 athletes from around the state gathered at Landmark Lanes on Saturday for the 2017 Special Olympics of Illinois state bowling tournament.

And they were striking up friendships as much as they were knocking down the pins.

"I love this tournament, and what it stands for," said Steve Lawson, whose team from Pekin won first place in its division. "We're all here to have fun and to meet different people.

"You might meet someone here, and two years from now, they're going to remember who you are. This is probably bowling in its purest form. Everybody is out having a good time, and everybody is cheering for everybody else."

Lawson bowled with longtime friends Bill Hopkins, Robert Reese and Larry "Woody" Woods.

They all bowl in the same Tuesday night league at Sunset Lanes. Lawson bowls on the same team with his son, Steve Jr., and Reese. Hopkins and Woods are on other teams.

Steve Lawson Jr. was behind the team from the Illinois Valley Recreation Sports Association (IVRSA) to provide some support.

"I'm not the actual coach, but I just came out to watch my dad and help these guys out," he said. "I bowl on two leagues with my dad, and we found out that if you're not having fun, you're not going to do well.

"So if they start getting an attitude, we put it in check. And then they're having fun again. In this tournament, it's hard not to be having fun."

The Pekin group was among the older participants in the event, averaging between 42 and 53. But there were some much-younger participants on the lanes.

"We start at 8, and there are no limits for age," said Tracy Hilliard, the vice president for sports training and competition for Special Olympics Illinois. "In some tournaments, juniors are 8 to 15 and then 16 and over is seniors. We've had some 70-year-olds in some of our other events. The age range in bowling is pretty wide."

Hilliard has been working the Special Olympics state tournament for 25 years, all at Landmark Lanes.

"Bowling is probably our second most popular sport, behind track and field," she said. "We have over 6,000 bowlers in the state, and they had to qualify for state. There were 18 area competitions, and the gold medal winners advanced to five sectional events. The gold medal winners from there go to state."

There was competition in four divisions: singles, doubles, team and ramp.

Two other bowlers from IVRSA, Virginia Windsor and Carla Hopkins, went 1-2 in singles competition.

Some bowlers from the Community Workshop and Training Center in Peoria also did well.

Steve Novotny and Terry Follis placed third, and Amy Gengler and Robert Anderson of Chillicothe were eighth in doubles.

Gengler's monther, Alice, was on hand to support her daughter, but not to help with the scoring.

"I can't coach her, because I'm right-handed and she's left," Alice Gengler said. "We just do the best we can. I tell her to go and shake hands with the headpin.

"But no matter what they do, they've got a smile on their faces."

Johnny Campos can be reached at 686-3214 or jcampos@pjstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnnyCampos59.