Jan. 16, 2011
CABOT, Ark. — Vanderbilt came into the Mid-Winter Classic with a rare losing record. It had fallen out of the nation’s Top 10; some wondered if it had lost its winning knack.
Things didn’t seem much different when the Commodores botched a tidy lead and lost Friday in the tournament’s opening game. Who could have expected this gritty group of Black and Gold would regroup and reel off 12 straight victories and win the championship in a stunning turn of events? That’s exactly what happened.
In Sunday’s championship bracket, Vanderbilt edged Nebraska four Baker games to three, to topple the Cornhuskers for the second time in three days. Next up was a rematch with No. 1 ranked Maryland-Eastern Shore and the ‘Dores won going away, four games to one.
The championship match produced more drama. In a nip and tuck struggle that went to seven games, Vanderbilt’s Jessica Earnest and Samantha Hesley threw strikes in the ninth and tenth to cap a big rally and slip past a feisty Central Missouri squad by a mere nine pins.
Vanderbilt has captured many team championships, although ironically never here, over the years but this one, due to the circumstances, is one to remember.
“We had incredible momentum,” said Hesley as the team bus rolled home. “I think we were all just tired of losing. There are no losers on this team.”
Hesley, the newcomer to the roster, was the heroine in the day’s opener as she doubled in the tenth to push her team to a thrilling 256-247 high-wire win over Nebraska. Her final strike in the title game sealed things but she reasoned afterward that hers’ was not the big shot.
“Jessica’s strike in the ninth was the shot of the tournament,” Hesley said. “Without that strike it doesn’t matter what I did. Jess hit the pressure shot. When it got to me, I really didn’t have any option other than get it done.”
The team carried extra motivation. Earlier in the week, the Commodores had attended the funeral services for Harry Stoddard, the beloved, long-time general manager of their home Smyrna Bowling Center. The team embroidered “Harry” into the right sleeve of their game jerseys they will wear the rest of the season. They broke their huddles with the shout “Harry”.
Coach John Williamson thought his team did an excellent job of communicating and staying on plan until building a 3-0 lead on Central Missouri in the finale.
“We seemed to put our play in cruise control at that point and I think we learned a real good lesson in the process,” he said. “All in all, we did what we had to do and what we are very capable of doing.”
No Commodore made the All-Tournament team. Earnest placed 10th individually while Brittni Hamilton and Hesley tied for 15th.
Vanderbilt, which entered the weekend wanting to shake off the effects of a forgettable fall, exits at 25-18 and suddenly has new life. It earned 2-0 marks against the nation’s first and third rated teams and a split with the Jennies, rated fourth. It will start all over next week as the team travels to the Midwest for Nebraska’s Big Red Invitational.
Sunday’s Championship Bracket (Best four-of-seven Baker games; 15 teams competed in tourney)
Vanderbilt 4, Nebraska 3
NU 206 VU 180
NU 201 VU 173
VU 190 NU 158
VU 198 NU 141
NU 187 VU 160
VU 243 NU 195
VU 256 NU 247
Vanderbilt 4, Maryland-Eastern Shore 1
VU 201 UMES 181
UMES 182 VU 146
VU 213 UMES 203
VU 222 UMES 187
VU 212 UMES 167
Vanderbilt 4, Central Missouri 3
VU 223 CM 157
VU 188 CM 167
VU 223 CM 163
CM 172 VU 156
CM 211 VU 173
CM 214 VU 193
VU 192 CM 183