Reverse psychology stimulated Vandy

April 15, 2018

Recap | NCAA Bowling 2018 media_icon_photogallery.gif | NCAA Bowling 2018 media_icon_photogallery.gif

When Vanderbilt won its first NCAA championship in 2007, 29-year old head coach John Williamson readily admits he thought it was relatively easy.

“We had a team of four sophomores and a freshman and I actually thought we could win this championship on a regular basis,” he says. “But now 11 years later I’m older and a whole lot wiser. I know how difficult winning the national championship is and this time I’m going to enjoy it more than the last one.”

The Commodores surprised nearly everyone in the collegiate bowling world Saturday night by coming from behind to defeat second-seeded McKendree, 4-3, in a nationally televised Baker series that bowling fans won’t soon forget.

Perhaps the only people not taken aback by the Vandy victory were the Commodores themselves. But Williamson and assistant coach Josie Barnes — the freshman on the `07 championship team – worked an unusual psychology in the weeks after they were announced as the No. 4 tournament seed.

“I think the team might have thought I was a little crazy but I made sure that they understood that nobody outside our room was giving us a chance,” Williamson says. “I told them that the bowling world already had us losing so we had nothing to lose, no reason to fear anything because we had already lost in the court of public opinion.”

Williamson said he was actually hoping that by constantly telling his charges that they were an after-thought he would eventually step on their competitive pride. And he did more than talk. He and Barnes concluded that practice sessions must be made tougher so that the team “would get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Let the brilliant scholar-athlete Kristin Quah, winner of the NCAA’s Elite 90 Award Wednesday when her 3.953 gpa in biomedical and electrical engineering, explain.

“We were working on making shots and when we didn’t there were repercussions,” she said. “We were given a list of tasks at practice and if we didn’t complete it by the end of practice we were assigned a certain number of feet on the Jacob’s Ladder (an electronic stair machine in the conditioning room). It sucks – an endless ladder…it is awful. We did so many we actually broke the Jacob’s Ladder and had to use another machine called the VersaClimber. It was an emphasis we didn’t have in previous years and I think it helped.”

Quah said the coaching staff’ s bleak assessment of their chances caused her to think.

“There’s nothing we can do about what others think other than show them we can,” she says. “It’s not as important what other people think about us as what we think about ourselves and what we set out to accomplish.”

Another set of ears and legs listening to the drumbeat of mind games and Jacob’s Ladder duty was Samantha Gainor, a freshman who grew up playing baseball with the neighborhood boys. No shrinking violet, nobody would guess she was a novice at the Big Dance.

The Detroit Tiger fan from Chesterfield, Mich., made three game changing, momentum building and improbable spare conversions during the tournament. None was more important than the momentum setter in the first frame of Game 7. She had left a litter of pins — the 1-2-7-8-10 – on her first ball and with the national championship riding on the next 10 frames, she did some simple thinking.

“This is the first shot of Game 7 and it is makeable,” she recalled later. “It is only makeable if I commit to the shot and if I hit my mark, everything will happen.”

Freshman or veteran, the national championship atmosphere is like no other in collegiate bowling. The bright lights, the bleachers running down both sides of the lanes, the cameras everywhere, the television breaks for commercials, the sheer loudness of the highly partisan McKendree crowd – it took some getting used to.

“Practice was a good way to get used to the distractions,” Gainor said. “I was tight and didn’t make the best shots early but I was able to keep it clean. You can’t prepare for this, when the moment comes you just have to bowl.”

Victory has many heroes, defeat is an orphan. One of those hoisting the coveted trophy afterward was Maria Bulanova, whose father Max was watching from Moscow in the wee hours of the Russian morning.

The sophomore anchor hit two titanic strikes in the sixth game when the Commodores had to find a way to win or the game was over. McKendree had a slight edge and one could sense the Bearcats were ready to snap up the glistening trophy.

“I saw that,” Maria said, “and I told the guys to keep fighting, they think they have already won. I don’t know why but I felt more comfortable on the left lane and it felt great. I remember that everything felt comfortable, it would hook like it was supposed to do but when Bryanna (Clemmer, the McKendree anchor) struck I thought we lost.

“I didn’t want to look at the score but when everyone was still cheering I thought maybe it wasn’t over and I still felt good. I did the same exact shot with the same exact process. `Carry, please!’ I knew I needed a good third shot. I didn’t feel pressure about my shots, I don’t know why but it was just me, my ball and the pins. I didn’t notice anything else.”

Her timely double allowed Vandy to snatch a 208-205 win and extend into Game 7, where Gainor’s unforgettable spare and an ensuing five-bagger gave the `Dores a 47 pin lead after McKendree’s strike magic faded.

Maria might not have noticed anything else but the rest of the Commodore contingent did. When the team rushed the coveted championship trophy, cell phones lit up. Williamson said he had 88 text messages within minutes while fans heard from long-lost friends around the country. Oh, the power of ESPN and the lure of sports!

The national championship is the second for Vanderbilt bowling and fourth for the university. But you need not tell Coach Williamson; he is well aware how many the Commodores have and how incredibly hard they are to win.

And, by the way, while he was telling his team others didn’t give them a chance he was in a way crossing his fingers. He always thought his team had a golden chance at winning, so long as they believed in themselves and didn’t get lost in the glitz of the big stage.

Spare Shots

* Former Commodores Nicole Chanin and Giselle Poss drove to the tournament from Nashville where they are both employed.

* The start of the match was delayed a few moments after an unknowing media photograher walked on the freshly oiled surface during the national anthem and the lanes had to be redone.

* The Tropicana Lanes were anything but neutral with McKendree’s campus being a half hour away; the stands were full of McKendree students and members of the school’s men’s bowling team. It felt like a “road” game for Vandy fans.

* Teams need to make plays to win championships and in hindsight, Vanderbilt made a lot of big plays during the long tournament.

* After five frames, tv broke for three minutes and nearly five minutes between games, very different from the regular season.

* After spending about 90 minutes with trophy celebrations, photographs, a press conference and other media obligations the team and members of their family gathered at the team hotel for a pizza party.

* Coach Williamson’s wife Melissa and their four young boys arrived at the center just as the championship game got underway. They were unable to get to St. Louis any quicker as the boys had their team baseball games Saturday morning. The happy dad hoisted 18-month Tucker Jay in his arms immediately after the match ended, attracting a flood of television and still photographers.