LANSING, Mich. — Vanderbilt punched its ticket to the NCAA Bowling Final Four Saturday, sweeping a best-of-four tiebreaker, 4-0, with an energized Youngstown State team that earlier in the afternoon had beaten the Commodores in the mega-match.
The regional championship sends the nationally two-seeded Commodores to the national semi-finals in Las Vegas next Friday at the South Point Bowling Plaza. Vanderbilt will face three-seed Arkansas State in its semi while top-seed McKendree meets four-seed Nebraska.
It was an afternoon of huge momentum swings at the Royal Scot Lanes, where tension and pressure presided between the two Southland Bowling League powers.
The fired-up Penguins dominated the opening mega-match, winning the traditional point, 1,030-967, and romped to an easy win in the 5-game baker set after winning the first game by 72 pins, forcing the best-of-seven tiebreaker.
The Commodores returned to the decisive showdown after the 30-minute break between matches and a revised rotation of Amanda Naujokas, Alyssa Ballard, Caroline Thesier, Victoria Varano and Mabel Cummins quickly seized the momentum back, stringing the strikes they couldn’t find earlier.
“The first part of the day we were playing to hold onto our trip to Vegas,” head coach John Williamson said. “We were timid, our body language was bad and Youngstown was bowling well. We were on our heels the entire time”
“At the break, we talked about what was the worst thing that could happen; it was happening but we still controlled our fate and had to execute. We thought if we won the first game we could flip the script,” Williamson said. “We did that, then won Game 2. In the mega-match it snowballed against us and now it was snowballing for us. We made some big shots.”
What was said during the break between rounds to turn things around?
“We talked as coaches and Amelia and Mabel talked,” Williamson said. “There was definitely a sense of urgency. When they talk people listen, they have a lot of credibility as they don’t ask anyone to do anything they don’t do themselves. Mabel came out and was on a different level in the best of seven. That’s what you have to have, you have to hope people bowl crazy good.”
As with any big win, there were moments when everyone in the rotation made a big shot. This was especially true in tie-breaker Games 1 and 3 when Varano and Cummins combined for game-winning strike strings – a freshman and a senior possibly facing the end of her brilliant college bowling career.
Cummins said her shots would rank among the most important in her long and successful bowling career.
“It occurred to me that I was bowling for Mel and I as well as the team,” Cummins said. “This pattern plays into what I like to do. I had to make my best shot every single time. Our team saying is ‘everything ’til the end’ and this could be the end. They were most definitely among the most important shots I’ve ever thrown, right up there with the world championships. It comes down to you and I need to double or strike out.”
“Victoria had a really good look and made confident shots,” Williamson said. “That was really impressive for a freshman. She was decent in the first round but she got way more comfortable in the second. She made some huge shots for us.”
Varano knew the importance, too.
“I wasn’t so much nervous but more motivated to show up for my team and our seniors,” she said. “I knew how important it was to them. We knew they wanted it so we needed to show up and want it more than they did.”
Their late three-bagger let Vandy edge by YSU, 209-197, in the first game and the closing four in a row in Game 3 pushed the Commodores to a 181-168 win and a commanding 3-0 lead. The duo also struck in Game 2 but there was no drama as Vandy was winning big and Cummins also doubled in the 10th before giving way to fellow senior Amelia Kiefer, who added her strike as an exclamation point in Game 4.
Ballard was also instrumental in the tie-breaker from her second spot. After a sub-par mega-match, the steady freshman responded in a big way with six key strikes and one spare to help turn the tide.
“Alyssa is a freshman and there’s a lot of nerves in this situation,” Williamson noted. “There are seniors that end their career if we lose. It was nice to see her settle down and make shots like she did yesterday.”
In the mega-match, the obvious difference was Youngstown’s ability to bunch its strikes. There were several occasions when the Penguins had three bowlers with at least three in a row while the Dores were notching spares.
In the mega-match 5-game baker set, YSU exploded in Game 1 with a 227-155 advantage, leaving Vanderbilt trying in vain to close the gap. It never could and the final margin was 1,032-932.
The title is Vanderbilt’s second straight at the Lansing Regional and will mark the 10th time the Commodores have reached the Final Four in the 19 years of program existence.