– Vanderbilt bowling found itself in a precarious position midway through the NCAA Bowling Championship match last April. Defending champion McKendree had built a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven format at Tropicana Lanes in St. Louis, all in front of a national TV audience on ESPN2. That meant the Commodores had to win both Games 6 and 7 in order to secure the national championship.
In that moment, Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson
gathered his team and reverted back to his midseason coaching mantra.
"The message that we always try to preach is to be disciplined in everything we do," Williamson said. "You can't win Game 7 if you don't win Game 6. We made some quality shots in Game 6, and then in Game 7 it became, who can be the most normal? I thought we were the most normal in Game 7. We didn't necessarily expect to win; we didn't have the pressure McKendree had in being the defending champions. In the end, we just went out and had fun."
The end result was all Vanderbilt. The Dores took Game 6 thanks in part to a clutch 10th frame from then-sophomore Maria Bulanova
. They then clinched Game 7 in thrilling fashion by drilling five straight strikes. Following a rowdy celebration, Vanderbilt returned to Nashville with the second NCAA Bowling Championship in program history and fourth NCAA title overall for the university.
This week, the Commodores kick off their title defense against the same McKendree squad at McKendree's Hammer Invitational, which takes place Friday through Sunday in Fairview Heights, Ill. Williamson, a seasoned veteran entering his 15th year as head coach at Vanderbilt, knows his team can't take success for granted.
"That's one of the things we try to guard against: the disease of victory," Williamson said. "Right now, everybody is telling you how good you are. Our girls have to understand the things it took to be successful last year aren't what it will take to be successful this year. They will have to be more disciplined than they've been. They're going to have to work harder."
The Commodores return the bulk of their rotation from last season, save the departure of senior and NCAA Tournament Co-MVP Katie Stark
. But Co-MVP Emily Rigney
is back as a junior alongside the likes of senior Kristin Quah
, a three-time All-American, and Bulanova, herself a two-time All-American. Vanderbilt also adds a trio of highly touted freshmen in Angelique Dalesandro
, Liz Ross
and Brogan Zengel
Last week, Vanderbilt unofficially kicked off its 2018-19 season with a scrimmage against Arkansas State at the team's Student Rec Center bowling facility. The Dores mixed and matched different lineups in preparation for the Hammer Invitational. Associate head coach Josie Barnes, who helped Vanderbilt win the 2007 national title as a player, said she was particularly pleased with the Dores' effort on spares, a priority for this team during practice. Barnes also said the scrimmage allowed freshmen to acclimate to a college competition.
"I think overall it was pretty positive," said Barnes. "It was more of a test for our younger kids, getting their feet wet."
Vanderbilt was selected as the preseason No. 1 team in the country in the first National Ten Pin Coaches Association poll on Oct. 7, garnering 32 of the 40 first-place votes. That makes the target even bigger on the Commodores' backs as they head to face McKendree this weekend. But Williamson said the Dores prepare for that unique pressure in practice each and every day.
"Most people want to give us their best shot anyway, but now we're preseason No. 1 and we're the defending national champions. People are going to want it even more," Williamson said. "We tell our team every day at practice, if you can't be disciplined in here, you're not going to do it at a tournament. You're not going to do it when people are watching. That's what we preach."