NORTH KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Two of college bowling’s biggest rivals battled on the lanes for nearly six hours bidding for a coveted berth in the NCAA Final Four before Nebraska bested Vanderbilt in a dramatic best-of-seven, four games to three.
The setback, coupled with a Vandy mega match loss to the Cornhuskers earlier in the afternoon, ousted the gritty Commodores from the Big Dance and ended a strange season impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the natural volatility that comes with a youth-dominated lineup.
The Commodores had looked like seasoned veterans in Wednesday’s first two rounds coasting to easy wins, but things were different Thursday as they faced a seasoned Nebraska team that gained momentum as the hours passed.
It came down to the seventh game of the “if-necessary” match in the double-elimination tournament. The teams had split the first six games with each win coming on the left-hand lanes. As the region’s top seed, Nebraska had lane choice and naturally chose the left side.
The Commodores, with a rotation of Angelica Anthony, Angelique Dalesandro, Amanda Naujokas, Jennifer Loredo and Mabel Cummins, would not go quietly into the Midwest night. With strikes from Naujokas, Loredo and Cummins and a spare in the sixth, the Dores held a slight lead before the bowling gods turned cruel.
A 7-10 split in the seventh, followed by a missed-makeable in the ninth, combined with a late four-bagger by the Huskers spelled doom for the heartbroken Commodores – the final score 214-191.
Naujokas was the most consistent Commodore over the grueling day, filling frames with the seeming ease of a veteran despite being one of six Dores competing in her first NCAA championship.
“It was about the same as (Wednesday),” the New Yorker said in the gloom of a quiet ride back to the team hotel. “I was confident in my look and I knew that as long as I made confident shots I was going to get it into the pocket and leave something makeable. I was trusting in my ability, talking to Josie (Earnest Barnes) and trusting myself.”
Naujokas said the team tried put the right-lane handicap out of its collective mind in the decisive last Baker.
“We told each other that we just had to make our two best shots,” she said. “The two lanes were just different. We were just trying to fill the box, that was all we could do.”
The day had begun with Vanderbilt unbeaten and the Huskers in the loser’s bracket after dropping a match Wednesday to upstart Medaille. The Dores began the mega match by winning the first point, the team game by a 1,003-952 margin. However, as the match wore on Nebraska seemed to take the momentum behind strong play by anchor Crystal Elliott and some shaky spare shooting by Vandy at times.
A Husker 257 in the third Baker was actually the difference – Vandy shot a credible 1,056 but Nebraska countered with a strong 1,093 to win the point.
Vandy had closed the first best-of-seven to a 2-1 deficit and seemed to be changing the match’s momentum when it hit turbulence with three opens in a four frame sequence midway in game four. Instead of tying the match at 2-2, it became a big hole at 3-1 and soon the two old rivals were into the next set of best-of-seven Bakers to decide who advanced to the Final Four.
The Commodores return eight of their nine roster members – senior Lauren Potechin is graduating and likely heading to graduate school, perhaps at Duke. The rest of the group, including senior Samantha Gainor, returns next season as the Commodores will hope to make another run, this time with a more seasoned foundation that should bode well for the program’s future.
Head coach John Williamson was proud of his team’s effort over the uneven year which at times included the inability to practice as a group due to COVID-19 protocols on the Vanderbilt campus.
“This team showed a lot of heart for being so young and for some of the limitations we placed on them,” Williamson said. “They accomplished a lot, even though some of the culture-building we normally do during the year was not able to happen.
“They grew as a group. We have a ways to go in some areas but the vast majority of the team is under 20 years old. I applaud their effort and hopefully next year we will learn from this.”