Ready for Any Roll

by Graham Hays

Jennifer Loredo embodied championship culture long before she starred in the Final Four

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than one championship voyage has run aground when the person at the helm couldn’t resist tinkering with success. For Vanderbilt bowling head coach John Williamson, there was certainly risk in fiddling with the lineup that carried the Commodores through last April’s NCAA Regional and into the Final Four for the 10th time in 19 seasons.

But as Williamson and associate head coach Josie Earnest Barnes watched practice before the opening round of the Final Four in Las Vegas, the next move hardly felt like the typical bettor’s gamble. Jennifer Loredo made their choice obvious.

“I don’t know anything else,” Barnes recalled telling Williamson at the time. “But I know that she’s going to have to play if we want to win this thing.”

Williamson didn’t need convincing. In addition to her strong showing at practice that day, Loredo had history at the South Point Bowling Plaza. The lanes had suited the southpaw before: she won junior events and earned a place on the junior national team there. When the Final Four began in earnest, despite having not started in either the regional or conference tournament, Loredo was one of five bowlers in the lineup. She stayed there all weekend. Her clutch play helped the Commodores weather an opening defeat and mount a historic comeback to win their third national title. When the week began, she was hoping she was among the five starters; when it was over she left Las Vegas as the fifth Commodore to be named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Bowler.

“We call South Point the house that Jen built,” Barnes said. “It felt like if somebody was going to beat us, they were going to have to go through her—and she knew that. She carried herself with a lot of poise. It still gives me chills talking about it because it was just so cool to watch.”

Loredo’s moment of glory was a long time coming. It stretched across years: Across the ups and downs and patience required to compete for playing time on one of the country’s deepest teams. Across the challenges of a first year of college altered by a pandemic. Across an ocean, for that matter, rooted in unbreakable family bonds shaped by immigration and starting anew.

"She’s everything you want a Vanderbilt student-athlete to be: a member of the Honor Council, aspiring lawyer."

Vanderbilt bowling head coach John Williamson

Understanding what happened in Las Vegas is a bowling story. Understanding why it was possible is universal. Vanderbilt won the national title in no small part because Loredo made necessary shots. The law, history and society major seized that moment because bowling her best on the biggest stage was just one more way for someone who embodies championship culture to serve the people who mean the most to her.

“The idea of culture and team is the most important thing we do,” Williamson said. “It sets up short term success in the four years that they’re here, but it also sets them up for success in life. You have to learn to be able to rely on other people to be successful. You can’t do everything yourself. Getting attention is great, and everybody wants to be recognized—but recognizing and celebrating somebody else’s success doesn’t diminish what you’ve done or who you are.”

At an elite level, competitive bowling can be a solitary endeavor. It isn’t you and your friends donning matching monogrammed shirts for league night down at the local lanes. From the youth ranks to professional tours, individuals compete for local, regional and national honors. If it comes, the applause is theirs alone. As is the solitude. Adjusting to a college bowling’s team structure can, as Williamson puts it, be almost akin to learning a foreign language.

In Loredo’s case, it was a little like learning a foreign language while blindfolded. Not only did she grow up in California, which doesn’t sponsor high school bowling as a team sport, she also arrived in Nashville a matter of months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Limited contact and interaction helped ensure the team could compete that season, but the distance also posed challenges to bonding beyond the easy rapport she developed with classmates, roommates and fellow bowlers Amanda Naujokas and Caroline Thesier. It was, in many ways, a season in limbo.

And yet, it’s no stretch to say that Loredo was born onto a bowling team. Her parents and older siblings immigrated to the United States from the Philippines before she was born. The whole family bowls. When she was growing up in California, competitiveness fueled plenty of arguments on the lanes—the siblings bowled to see who would get out of chores. But with her parents working long hours to set up the family for success, bowling was also an unfaltering connection point with her siblings. Their selflessness in helping raise her left a lasting impression—one that prepared her for Vanderbilt in ways she couldn’t have imagined.

“I think just between siblings, that’s where I first learned the importance of bonds,” Loredo said.

Sure enough, as pandemic restrictions gradually lifted, she had the opportunity to make deeper connections and further acclimate to the college bowling environment. Every Vanderbilt bowler experiences that adjustment to some degree—it isn’t easy to go from the spotlight and adrenaline rush of winning junior titles to working hard just to earn a place in the lineup.

Loredo channeled her competitiveness into supporting teammates. Still, there were times when she was flummoxed when coaches asked everyone to think about what they could have done better after a tournament. If her voice was hoarse from cheering, what more could she have done from the sidelines? With time, she realized that there were still opportunities to grow and to help her teammates grow. They were in the small details of champions: accountability for cutting down on practice distractions or huddling together more often to talk through setbacks.

As the bonds grew stronger, almost fueled by making up for the time lost during the pandemic, so did the desire to contribute to the greater goal in any way she could.

“It’s a little clichéd to say they’re unforgettable, but they really are,” Loredo said of her teammates. “Aside from competing for a national championship with this group of girls, it’s just bonding over the random Target trips, walks to the post office or complaining about how bad a workout was.

“It’s really awesome to see a group of 10 girls get together for one goal and push each other and uplift each other for that goal and not put anyone down.”

It’s much the same reason she joined the Undergraduate Honor Council. She was initially impressed by former teammate (and current graduate assistant coach) Mabel Cummins’ passion for that group. Here again, in what she described as her “third place” after her academic and athletic homes, she met people who inspired her. They’re people who may have never picked up a bowling ball in their lives, but they are just as passionate about something as she is about her sport—and increasingly about a future she envisions in immigration law.

“You can’t teach what she’s got,” Barnes said. “It’s intangible. There is so much positive energy behind her. Nothing is a put-on. When she comes into a room, the energy shifts—and in the best way. She’s got this smile that lights it up, and you know it’s going to be a good conversation.”

All of those qualities came together to bring her to Las Vegas this past April.

The Final Four marked Vanderbilt’s second trip to the city last season. She loves bowling in the city—not just because of her results, but because it’s where her boyfriend lives and is often the easiest place for her parents to travel to watch her compete. Months earlier, in January, the Commodores traveled there for a regular season tournament. It was just weeks after Loredo had earned a spot on the junior national team with a strong showing on the same lanes, and she had been understandably disappointed to play a limited role in the regular season event.

Rather than let that disappointment eat at her, she took it as a challenge. She spent extra time in the lanes after practice throughout the spring, returning again to the solitude of pursuing excellence.

“She’s one of the hardest workers we have and does a lot of things on her own,” Williamson said. “You’ll walk into the bowling center on campus at pretty much any given time, and if she doesn’t have a class, she’s either coming or going.”

As the Final Four approached, she felt like she was bowling well, and she hoped her history at South Point might weigh in her favor. With so many thoughts swirling, she sought counsel from Jessica Earnest, Josie’s sister and a former Vanderbilt All-American and Most Outstanding Bowler in the 2013 Final Four. At its essence, Earnest’s advice boiled to a simple but reassuring sentiment:

“Whatever happens, happens. You controlled all that you could have.”

Though Loredo had only about 90 seconds notice that she was starting on the championship’s opening day, she was ready when her name flashed up on the scoreboard—and not just because she always warmed up as if she might start. She was ready because she embodied everything it takes to win a team championship long before she rolled the balls that helped clinch one.

“She’s everything you want a Vanderbilt student-athlete to be: a member of the Honor Council, aspiring lawyer,” Williamson said. “In my role, I can’t really root for people, but I would hope that she has a final spring semester that she’ll take into law school and be very proud of.”


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