NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A sense of normalcy has returned to Vanderbilt’s bowling practice.
Unlike last year’s strange, COVID-19-induced quarantine policies, the Commodores’ fall training sessions now sport a familiar rhythm.
Vanderbilt is an interesting case study this season – a program that returns 100 percent of last year’s production that produced a Southland Bowling League championship but was disappointed with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Championship.
“It’s nice to return as many as we do but we need to become more consistent,” Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson said. “We were up and down last year and we have geared our fall practices to encourage competition. Nobody should assume they have a guaranteed position in the lineup.”
One-on-one practices began Sept. 7 with each of the 11 team members allowed by NCAA rule to bowl four times per week for one hour at a time. Team sessions started October 1 with an early eye on Tulane’s Colonial Lanes Classic scheduled for Oct. 22-24.
Williamson and Vandy associate head coach Josie Barnes have been pleased with the early sessions.
“We’ve been able to start ahead of where we did last year,” Barnes said. “A lot of our girls already understand our baseline. I’ll give our freshmen lots of credit even though they are new – they are some of the most flexible freshmen in terms of buying in for what we are trying to teach so the practices run smoothly and better.”
As an example, Vanderbilt asks all of its bowlers to successfully pass a spare shooting test – a variety of spare combinations – before “graduating” to full-scale practices. In the past, there were times when one or more struggled to complete the requirement. This year the typical Commodore had checked this box in no more than two attempts and Barnes said most were done before she had returned from winning the U.S. Open at the end of August.
There are several reasons for this uptick – experience and togetherness.
“The biggest difference this fall is outside of practice,” Barnes said. “The girls actually know each other. It’s making practice run smoother, they have some camaraderie before even walking through the doors. Last year they weren’t even allowed to see each other.”
Williamson added: “We don’t do a lot of structured team building. But their ability to interact in the dorms is so significant. Last year everything was based off of roommate pairings so the freshmen really couldn’t and didn’t interact with others, they interacted with themselves. So we were expecting people who don’t really know people to fall in line. A lot of culture is taught from upperclassmen to younger people.”
While no one should label this team as veteran, there is an intriguing mix of some upperclassmen with others that just got their collegiate feet wet a year ago. And the coaches like their trio of freshmen that include Kailee Channell, Paige Peters and Kaylee Hitt.
“This is probably the most talented team we’ve had from 1 to 11,” Barnes said, “and we are going to travel all 11 so if we didn’t think someone had a chance to participate they wouldn’t come along.”
Figuring out a lineup is a long way off and Williamson points out that the sport of bowling is different than, say, basketball with its various lane conditions and oil patterns changing the landscape each week.
“It’s too early to make lineup projections,” he said. “In the fall I’d imagine we’ll have a more expansive lineup – people will get opportunities and as the season progresses we’ll hone in on our core. I’ve noticed in sports in general that lineups often become evident.
“Week to week, tournament to tournament, we can play to different people’s strengths so bowling differs from some other sports. We’ll be more liberal early as to who plays and get more conservative as the season moves on. We want to get as many people ready for April as possible.”
Many of the Commodores competed in big events over the off-season.
“We had several that had very successful summers,” Barnes said. “Mabel (Cummins) and Caroline (Thesier) had some big moments and I thought Amanda (Naujokas) had a fantastic summer so I’d be surprised if they don’t continue that into the fall.”
Vandy has several firsts on this year’s team. It has the first Tennessean in the program’s 17 years in Channell, of Morris Chapel, and the first Kentuckian in Hitt, from Cold Spring, Kentucky.
It also has its first-ever graduate student in All-American Samantha Gainor and there was some curiosity of how the demands of grad school would fit into a bowler’s routine. The Michigan native is pleased with how things have functioned and so are the coaches.
“The actual classroom part of grad school and practice has worked very well” Williamson said. “She’s the first grad student we’ve had and we’ve found that some of the outside classroom things such as group projects and preparing for interviews have added to her plate. She’s handled that very well.”