April 12, 2008
OMAHA, Neb. — When it was over, there was heartbreak and thoughts of what might have been.
The Commodores were minutes away from sweeping Maryland-Eastern Shore in four games and moving into the title game of the NCAA Bowling Championship. Things looked rosy as the `Dores had snapped off four straight strikes and had an advantage in pins with just two frames to go.
The first harbinger of doom came with an open ninth frame, somewhat of a rarity with a Vanderbilt team that is among the national leaders in spare conversion. That seemingly innocent wrinkle allowed a feisty MES team to squeak out a 200-198 win and stay alive.
No problems it seemed. Vanderbilt was returning to the right side lane 10, the same one that had produced a first game score of 222 and a third game 225.
Once again victory seemed in sight until more opens in the eighth and tenth frames again cracked the door for the underdog Lady Hawks.
It still seemed likely for Black and Gold victory when MES anchor Jessica Worsley left a 2-10 split on her first attempt of the tenth frame. The odds of converting that wide combination are quite low and the open would put Vanderbilt into the title game against Arkansas State University. To the surprise of everyone in Thunder Alley, Worsley managed to hit the combination and gave MES a shocking 193-190 win.
It was all downhill from there.
The loss in the national semifinals was not what this team expected; not what it had worked for all year. This group of 10 high-achieving women had set their hearts on repeating as national champions. There was no consolation in coming close.
This is not a group that settles for second best easily. They all essentially showed that when they chose to attend Vanderbilt and the Top 20 rated academic regimen that goes with it. This program, incidentally, consistently has one of the highest team grade points on campus.
They are winners and winners take coming up short hard. But there are lessons to be learned, hard lessons from this unhappy evening on the cold and windy plains of Nebraska.
One lesson that will never be forgotten is that when you have an opponent down and nearly out, never give them a chance to get back in the game no matter how obvious victory appears at the moment.
Another lesson that everyone that enjoys athletics must remember, be they participants or fans, is that these are just games and games by their nature are totally unpredictable. Games are played by real people, not electronic robots that are devoid of physical and emotional characteristics. As the saying goes, “that’s why we buy tickets.”
The bitter defeat was also a vivid reminder that top quality opponents are very capable of making big plays at crucial times. While Vanderbilt fans can sigh and shake their heads at the improbable spare conversions and wobbly strikes that will look like perfect rolls in the history books, one must give the Lady Hawks credit for staying in position to win when all appeared lost.
For the Commodores, it will take some time to begin looking forward to next season with much anticipation. The entire 10-woman roster returns along with the addition of the nation’s No. 1 high school bowling prospect.
But that is thought for a later time. Right now these Commodores are left with a bitter taste that will linger over a long summer.
For those lucky enough to know this gallant bunch, however, we will be left with memories of this team’s many accomplishments, its uncommon work ethic and the high class in which they represented themselves, Vanderbilt University and the evolving sport of collegiate bowling.
Commodore fans admire and appreciate the intensity of Michelle Peloquin, the gusto of Josie Earnest, the consistency of Tara Kane and Karen Grygiel’s knack of winning. Those attending this national championship will long remember the exceptional performance of freshman Brittany Garcia, who had bowled little during the season but was a major factor in the team’s impressive performance on the plains.
Yes, the off-season will be a long one but there is sunshine and fields of clover just over the horizon.
NCAA TOURNAMENT NOTES
* Talk about wild roller coaster rides. Those unfamiliar with high level bowling may never know the emotional swings that occur during team competition. A wobbly strike can set off a surge of confidence among the rest of the team and inspire a powerful run. Body language changes. The reverse can happen; a missed spare conversion can send a wave of uncertainty through the troops and bring on a dry spell.
* A layman cannot possible understand the complexities of this sport. For reasons that apparently are understandable, the average guy relates the bowling being done on the highest levels of as similar to what he sees when he goes to a bowling center on Kid’s Day. The same folks realize that the golf they play on Saturday afternoons is not the same game the pros play at Augusta.
* Vanderbilt’s Josie Earnest is a natural competitor and it’s apparent she admires winners. Ask her favorite golfer and the reply is predictably “Tiger Woods.” She could be in a minority, however, among Vandy fans when she admits she was pulling for Candace Parker and the Lady Vols through their Final Four run. Winners attract winners.
* The grounding of many American Airlines planes affected the tournament. Vanderbilt was originally booked on a flight through Dallas and on to Omaha but learned 12 hours before takeoff that it had been cancelled. It managed to jump on a Delta flight through Cincinnati with no change of plans. Not so fortunate for Sacred Heart’s team, which arrived in Hartford at 4:30 a.m. to learn its flight had just cancelled. The team arrived after hours of waiting and going to Denver, Colorado first.
* There is science involved in the ball composition and the way the holes are especially drilled to fit the expert’s hand and throwing form. Then there are those lane conditions that few understand. A bowling lane is not a bowling lane at the high levels. There are oil patterns put down over parts of each lane that affect the roll of the ball. These oil patterns change with the wear of balls or the heat or coolness of the arena. That means the proper path to get a strike changes often during a game and bowlers need to adjust. The game becomes physical and mental – oh so different than that social league where lane conditions are made to help the average bowler attain the highest score possible.
* Collegiate bowling teams are becoming more even. Just five years ago, most experts would agree that there were only two or three teams with the talent to win the NCAA championship. Today’s semi-finals has two teams making their debut in the Final Four while the No. 1 rated Nebraska team actually was the first squad eliminated from the tournament after losing eight of the nine games it played.
* In nearly every tournament, the eventual champion must grab victory from the jaws of defeat. In the recent men’s basketball Final Four, for example, Davidson had a shot at the buzzer to beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. It didn’t fall and Kansas went on to win the national championship. In Vanderbilt’s early rounds, the Commodores won improbable Baker game victories when opposing anchors surprisingly did not produce the expected results.
* Bowling aficionados call the facilities they play in “centers or houses”, not “alleys”. Thunder Alley, the brand new bowling center in Omaha, is tremendous with a full scale restaurant, large flat screen televisions, a food court similar to a new mall, 24 lanes on one side of the house and another 20 on the other, meeting rooms and a current arcade. Omaha is a smoke-free city so the environment is most pleasant for all.