LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Hours after the fabulous South Point Bowling Plaza has grown quiet and the national champion Vanderbilt Commodores have exited the building, there is finally an opportunity to reflect upon a few glorious memories that will linger a lifetime with members of the bowling team and its community.
What happens in Vegas should not stay in Vegas.
Here are a few thoughts and observations that will stay with this 20-year follower of NCAA bowling:
The tentative Commodores were down three games to one to Arkansas State in a best-of-seven format to determine the national championship. How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.
A patient and methodical Vanderbilt won Game 5 easily but lots of fingernails were chewed during Game 6.
It came down to national Player of the Year Mabel Cummins in her anchor role (doesn’t it always come down to Mabel?) She had to convert a tricky 3-10 split—her nemesis—for Vandy to have a chance. Head coach John Williamson would later call that conversion the biggest spare shot in program history, allowing VU to win 193-187.
Vandy would take the title comfortably in Game 7—the first time in championship finals history that a team has rallied after being down 3-1.
Vanderbilt Bowling: a Program of Firsts
Vanderbilt has a knack of sniffing our chances to make history. Among the memorable program firsts:
- First sport to win a team NCAA championship at Vanderbilt
- First bowling team ever invited to the White House by the president
- First bowling team to take an international trip (Paris, Rome, Florence 2012)
- First Southland Bowling League team to win the new conference tournament
- First team in any collegiate sport to win a national championship in Las Vegas—until this tournament, the NCAA avoided scheduling championship events in the city known for its gambling
The Instant Classic
Casual fans will recall the title match but those inside South Point Plaza will never forget the semifinal match with Nebraska. With the stakes as high as one can imagine—the winner advancing to the national championship match and the loser ending its season—both teams were electric and the match advantage swung back and forth the last three frames. We’re up, now we’re done.
A Vanderbilt fan whispered to nobody in particular, “we need divine intervention,” heading into the 10th as the Commodores were down about 30 pins given two long Husker strike strings. Shockingly, former Husker Player of the Year Crystal Elliott split-opened in the 10th, cracking the door for Cummins.
You could have stirred the tension with a stick as the Vandy star struck once, struck twice and then calmly rolled one down the middle to knock down seven pins and win it, 1,115-1,109.
A very senior bowling official, who works professional and international events, called that game one of the best he’d seen in decades. An instant classic.
Let’s be honest here. If you had drawn Jennifer Loredo in the office pool to become the Most Valuable Player at the NCAA Championship before the tournament began, you might have tossed your ticket in the trash. She had gone tournaments without ever throwing a ball after all.
Unless … you followed some of the major junior tournaments and realized that the rarely-played Commodore junior had experienced tremendous success one these very South Point lanes.
Loredo and the Commodore coaches certainly knew that left-handers have a big advantage on these lanes for technical reasons that require a deep dive into the weeds. Jenn would be the only left-hander in the championship match and she was beyond magnificent, at one point throwing 11 strikes in 12 attempts.
There’s an old sports saying, “everyone wants to win on game day but not everyone is willing to prepare to win on game day.” Loredo, she of the million dollar smile and quick laugh, was more than willing to prepare all year despite standing in the back of the settee cheering for her teammates nearly the entire season.
When she got her chance, she was ready. Boy, was she ready! Tremendously impressive.
Esprit de Corp
It sounds hokey, old-school or whatever, but teams that win big almost always have tremendous internal chemistry. That was this Vanderbilt team … from the superstar Cummins, who despite bearing down on a medical school focus, broke into tears at Senior Day when she tried to put into words what this team and her Vanderbilt experience meant to her, to her good buddy, Amelia (Mel) Kiefer, who seldom bowled but was undoubtedly one of the team leaders. Williamson told television cameras that, “positions are rented here, not owned by individuals,” as winning is the objective. As a result, gifted bowlers shuffled in and out of the rotation all season in favor of the hot hand.
How did the team celebrate Saturday night in Vegas after its big win? Getting their photograph at the iconic “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, choosing to eat at Taco Bell and then getting their pictures taken at the Bellagio.
They will never forget the togetherness. Or the accomplishments.
A Memorable Quote
Williamson tends to shy from the spotlight but when asked in the press conference after defeating McKendree to stay alive in the elimination bracket, the 19-year veteran with over 1,500 career wins said, “This is Las Vegas. If you have a chip and a chair you have a chance.”
Thirty hours later his team would hoist its third national championship trophy.