SMYRNA, Tenn. — For a Vanderbilt senior class that has experienced victory at the highest level, finishing their regular season careers in third place at their own Columbia 300 Music City Classic was not what these Commodores had envisioned.
But third place was where they wound up after losing to eventual winner McKendree in Sunday’s opening match and Arkansas State in the semifinal before defeating Louisiana Tech in the consolation game.
“It was another inconsistent day,” Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson summarized. “It started ragged but finished on a good note with our four seniors performing well.”
Senior Days have very mixed emotions, especially when conference and NCAA postseason play lies ahead. It’s the last of the regular season tournaments but none of the seniors really feels it’s the end of their collegiate trail.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” Emily Rigney said when pressed for her Senior Day emotions. “You are always told your four years will go by quickly but somewhere in the middle you start thinking it’s never going to end. Then, all of a sudden, it’s almost over and it does seem time flies by.”
There were reminders of Senior Day throughout the Smyrna Bowling Center this weekend.
Giant head shots were on display of each senior. The Australian national anthem was played in Rigney’s honor before play began Saturday, the left-hander hailing from East Doncaster, Australia. Sunday brought the Russian national anthem in honor of Bulanova, the Moscow, Russia product.
Bulanova said in the heat of the bowling matches, being a senior was far from her thoughts – but afterward the All-American admitted that well-wishers created some emotions for her.
“People are coming up saying it was a pleasure to watch me these four years and I started to cry,” she acknowledged.
Bulanova was named to the all-tournament team – the 15th time in her outstanding career – after finishing in a tie for fifth place Saturday with a 215.8 average. Breanna Clemmer of McKendree was the MVP with a 239.8 average in five team games.
Vanderbilt, the tourney’s No. 2 seed, met McKendree, the top seed, in the curtain-raiser. The day got off on the wrong foot with four Vandy opens in the first five frames before the Commodores rallied to win the second game and tie it in the best of seven format.
McKendree won Game 3 (the right lane was winning early) and perhaps the match turning point came in the fourth game. The Commodores seemed positioned to win and tie the match at 2-2, but an open in the seventh hurt. Bulanova could still have pulled out a win with a first-ball strike in the 10th but she spared and then struck, leaving Vanderbilt on the short end of a 204-202 score.
The Commodores won Game 5 but were swamped by a McKendree six-bagger and three opens to lose the game and match, 4-2.
Arkansas State was red hot in the next contest, jumping out to a 3-1 lead with strike strings creating big pin counts. The gritty Commodores fought back, winning Game 5 247-222 and Game 6 234-223 before bowing in the deciding game by a 238-171 margin.
That brought up the third place match with Louisiana Tech and like Saturday’s conclusion, it was the seniors powering the way to victory. A rotation of Rigney, Samantha Gainor, Leyen, Wahner and Bulanova clicked well, producing one 266 game. Bulanova’s quality 10th frame finalized a narrow, 195-193, win in the first game and from that point Tech’s game faded. Vandy won going away, 4-0.
Gainor was also honored in the ceremonies, becoming recipient of the Harry Stoddard Award, presented to the Commodore with outstanding work ethic, enthusiasm and selflessness as voted upon by the entire team. Stoddard was a former general manager of the Smyrna Bowling Center and instrumental in the program’s early success.
Vandy is now off until the Southland Bowling League championship March 20-22 in Conroe, Texas.