Vanderbilt Falls in Regional Final

The Commodores advanced to their fourth consecutive NCAA Regional final but fell to Arkansas State

by Rod Williamson

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Similar to last season, Vanderbilt’s bowling season came to an end Saturday against Arkansas State with one significant difference. Unlike last year when the Commodores defeated ASU to win the national championship, this year the tables were turned and Vanderbilt lost to the Red Wolves in the regional finals by a 2-1 mega match score.

After being upset in Friday’s opening round, the Commodores refused to go gently into the cool Rochester night. Vanderbilt downed a spirited Merrimack outfit that had high aspirations of its own in Saturday’s morning elimination match, winning both mega-match points to advance to the regional championship with the top-seeded Red Wolves.

Arkansas State’s score sheet was rich in doubles and turkeys in pulling away in the traditional game, winning 1,058-975. The Red Wolves had an early stretch of 10 strikes in a row to seize a 42-pin lead after five frames and were never seriously threatened despite Paige Peters’ 211 and 210s by Haley Lindley and Victoria Varano.

But Vanderbilt dug deep and exploded in the first game of the five-game Baker set. The Commodores, using a rotation of Peters, Natalie Kent, Amanda Naujokas, Lindley and Varano, began with the front seven and led by 60 pins after posting a 233. The Dores led the entire way, although the lead varied from as few as 13 pins to as many as 77. The right lane was more user friendly and that would play a role later in the match.

Peters was exceptional in this series and the Bowl-A-Roll facility thundered with a partisan local group cheering for Vandy’s lineup, which included three native New Yorkers—Naujokas, Varano, and especially the nearby product, Kent.

With a 1,042-999 win in the Baker set, the mega-match moved to the best of seven baker tiebreaker. Vanderbilt jumped out quickly to grab a 1-0 lead despite three open frames, which soon became a harbinger of trouble. Vandy suffered three early open frames and could only muster 169 pins in Game 2, and it never got much better as it had 13 opens in the five games. The 4-1 defeat ended Vanderbilt’s season and moved Arkansas State into next week’s Final Four.

Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson explained how he saw the pivotal game unfold.

“The lanes transitioned,” he said. “We thought the right lane was better than the left lane, although we also thought the left lane was not as bad as both teams were playing it, it was more mental. We won Game 1 in the best of seven, but momentum swung big for them when we opened three of the first six frames in Game 2. We had appeared to steal Game 1 on the left and were moving to the ‘better lane’ on the right, but we gave right back. That was deflating and from that point on we basically had three opens a game, many of them missed-makeables. We were bowling a long time today and we seemed to run out of gas.”

Williamson saw a positive in his team’s performance.

“For the better part of the year I have wanted us to fight and compete, and it would have been really easy after yesterday morning’s disappointment to just lay down, but they came back and advanced to the regional final,” he noted. “We put a very good Arkansas State team on the ropes; they do some special things with the bowling ball. They have a very experienced group that has played in two national championships and for us to go toe-to-toe at the end, it just wasn’t meant to be today.”

The morning’s Merrimack semifinal seems like an after-thought in the long and eventful day, but it would rank among the tensest matches of Vanderbilt’s season. Putting aside the obvious stakes—the loser’s season is over—the opening traditional game was relatively uneventful.

Vanderbilt grabbed an early lead and saw it grow throughout the match. Advantages ranged from 53 pins after five into the eventual 1,013-925 win. Lindley’s brilliant 236 led the way while Kailee Channell struck her last four throws for a 216 and Peters added 201. That point gave no foreshadowing to the drama that would come over the next 75 minutes.

The Commodores used a Baker rotation of Peters, Alyssa Ballard, Channell, Varano and Lindley. Keeping in mind, the point goes to total pins after five Bakers, Vandy clung to precarious leads of one, nine, three, and finally, 23 heading into the fifth game.

That lead might have been bigger if not for a series of three split/opens by the freshman star Lindley in the 10th. Never mind that she had been lights out leading up to these brief moments, there was an obvious emotional toll taken as Vandy teammates and coaches alike did their best to remind Lindley that they had her back.

“We all recognized that nobody’s going to be perfect; we’re all there to pick each other up,” Channell said.

Channell and Ballard put actions to their words. Both struck twice in the crucial fifth game, each pair coming after Peters had split. (Peters had converted in the first but opened in the sixth)

Ballard had not bowled in the traditional game but came into the Baker point ready. She was precise on her spare shots and made a number of key strikes, none bigger than the fifth game.

“I was thinking of what I had been doing the whole match, making sure I knew what I was doing and it ended well,” the Fort Worth, Texas, sophomore said.

Merrimack came into the regional ranked 16th nationally and was the 3-seed here but was outstanding in all three of its matches—nearly toppling top-seed Arkansas State yesterday before falling, 4-3, in the tiebreaker. The Warriors are a relatively new program but are stocked with a handful of veteran transfers, and they were one of the nation’s hottest programs at season’s end.

Williamson wanted to pay tribute to his three seniors—Caroline Thesier, Jennifer Loredo, and Naujokas—who saw their college careers come to a conclusion.

“I can’t thank Caroline, Amanda and Jennifer enough for what they have done for the program,” Williamson began. “They came to Vanderbilt as freshman in the COVID year, and they had to learn our team dynamic remotely. They won a national championship, two conference championships, two regional championships and were also in two other regional finals. They sort of cemented the notion that championships come through us, we want to compete for them, and you won’t win them all, but they established something that others can build upon.”

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