SMYRNA, Tenn. – Before Vanderbilt defeated McKendree for the Columbia 300 Music City Classic championship, it needed to beat Arkansas State in the semifinal match. The chances appeared bleak after the Red Wolves put the Commodores on the bowling ropes.
Deadlocked after seven Baker games, the teams went into a half-game or modified Baker of five frames to determine the winner. Arkansas State started with four straight strikes, contrasted to two spares by Vanderbilt. But there was no panic from the black and gold.
“A couple weeks ago,” the all-tournament selection Samantha Gainer explained, “we spent an entire practice on half-game Bakers. The coaches would draw scenarios and for the most part my team drew high numbers [that an imaginary opponent had shot] so we had to execute and strike. Practicing that and putting ourselves in those situations meant that when we were faced with a half-game, we didn’t panic. We knew what to do and also understood that we could come back from an early hole and win.”
Adel Wahner started things with a strike in the third, followed by Gainor’s contributing bulls-eye. When the Arkansas State anchor opened in the fifth, Bulanova seized the chance for heroics by nailing three more strikes for a stunning win, setting off thunderous chants of “Black-gold, black-gold” and propelling the team into the title match with McKendree.
The championship game surprisingly lacked the drama that one may have expected from the nation’s two top-ranked teams. Vandy won the first game, dropped the next two and then rattled off three straight games to win, 4-2. Vandy has now beaten the Bearcats in seven of the two teams’ 10 season matches. This time, the victory came with a Music City Classic championship.
Bulanova, the tournament’s most valuable player, recounted her dazzling finish in the Arkansas State overtime and tipped her cap to her teammates in the process.
“Four and five baggers don’t happen in the 10th frame,” the junior All-American said. “Sam always had my back and I can hardly think of a game she didn’t strike in the ninth. I knew there was a chance to win when she [Arkansas State anchor] missed her spare. It was now in my hands. I felt good, knowing if I missed left or right it would be fine so I just needed to throw a good shot. I thought of all those in front of me that found a way to strike so why don’t I do the same? I trusted my process and treated it like any other shot.”
The normally stoic Bulanova stifled tears when explaining what winning meant to her.
“I really wanted us to go for the title and it was harder than some past tournaments to throw those strikes. We are working hard, especially the seniors [Kristin Quah and Jordan Newham], and I wanted to win for them.”
One of the unsung heroines was Bryanna Leyen, who had not thrown a competitive shot the entire tournament until getting the emergency call two and a half games into the title match. After an open, she went spare followed by four strikes and a final spare. Leyen said her first job was to calm herself down and remembered the lessons of Vanderbilt sports psychologist Vicki Woosley. Deep breathing and slower thoughts.
“I wanted that chance and when I got it, I looked at my teammates and there were two seniors and I understood I was playing for something way more important than this tournament,” the Vandy junior said.
Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson said he was proud of his team’s comeback in the half-game but pointed to what he felt like was a mistake by his squad.
“Overall what was good was making shots when they were important,” he said. “But the pace of our modified baker was very bad; we allowed them to throw four strikes before we made a spare in the second frame. We could have been shut out before our third bowler threw a shot and that created some unnecessary tension. Fortunately Adel, Sam and Maria made big shots. Essentially Arkansas State put up a score and we had to try to beat it, just like we worked in practice. We didn’t have to talk, they knew what to do.”
He was also proud of Leyen’s outstanding relief work.
“Bryanna was good. At first there was some rust and timidness but she fed off the momentum and got into the flow of the game. We had problems all day with opens from the first three and I don’t know if they ever truly got into the flow of the games. They may have been worried about trying to be perfect and I think Bryanna just enjoyed the moment.”
Williamson thought he could pinpoint the turning point in the championship match.
“Maria was able to be successful because Bryanna, Adel and Sam were able to feed into her,” he said. “When we went off the sheet from the fifth frame against McKendree [resulting in a 235 score], that was a turning point where we went from being lost to being in control. When we give Maria a chance she can either end a game or prolong a game. But to do that everyone has to do their job.”
Some coaches shy away from “record talk” but Williamson admitted it’s been discussed.
“We mentioned tying that record [five season tournament wins] to the group and noted we still have the opportunity to add to it. If we are able to do what we want to do, they could leave this team as one of the best Vanderbilt has ever had. It’s already in the conversation and it’s just where we go from here. I’m not hesitant to talk about because at the end of the day, they are already thinking about it. The one thing we aren’t is content with what we’ve done. We’re going to enjoy the fruits of what we’ve done today and then get back to work.”
After the tournament, senior Jordan Newham was announced as the recipient of the annual Harry Stoddard Award, selected by team vote for the person exemplifying loyalty, enthusiasm, work ethic and commitment to excellence. It is the only postseason honor the program awards.
Vandy’s next appearance comes next Friday through Sunday at the Southland Bowling League Championship in Dallas. The SBL is the nation’s toughest conference with four of the NCAA’s top six teams and a contingent of other capable programs eager to slay a giant.
MCC All-Tournament team: Bulanova (MVP), Gainor, Erica Quesada of North Carolina A&T, Taylor Russell of UAB and Dakotah Hazelwood of SFA.