EGG HARBOR, N.J. — Vanderbilt roared to its third tournament victory of the spring semester and fourth of the 2018-19 season Sunday by defending its championship at Monmouth’s Hawk Flight Invite. The Commodores defeated fifth-ranked Sam Houston State, 4-2, in best of seven Baker games in winning Monmouth’s tourney for the third time in four years.
The second-ranked Dores led the tournament wire-to-wire, paced by career best efforts by Adel Wahner and Samantha Gainor, who were honored on the all-tournament team. Wahner, the Junior Team USA member, was second in Saturday’s individual play while Gainor, just a sophomore, was close behind in fourth place.
In winning a tournament for the fourth time this year, the Commodores crawled within one win of the program’s all-time best. The 2009-10 team, which included All-Americans Josie Earnest, Brittni Hamilton and Jessica Earnest, won five championships. Vandy has a chance to tie the mark when it hosts the Columbia 300 Music City Classic in two weeks.
The Commodores, 83-32, actually defeated Sam Houston State twice on Sunday – once in the morning’s semi-final – and had beaten the Kats Saturday during a positional round of the 18-team tourney. It was yet another instance this season when Vanderbilt had to figure out how to beat a quality opponent three times in short order.
On this Sunday, there were no substitutions as the Black and Gold stuck to a rotation of Emily Rigney, Jordan Newham, Wahner, Gainor and Maria Bulanova.
It should be noted that there was a third match Sunday; the NCAA bracket hooks up the team advancing into the title match in the second round with the team at the bottom of the standings, mostly to avoid the disadvantage of the winning team sitting idly by as its eventual opponent stays focused. Vandy polished off Bloomfield College with a rotation of Bryanna Leyen, Braeden Abrahamsen, Angelique Dalesandro, Jordan Newham and Kristin Quah.
Sam Houston State and Vanderbilt know each other very well and their two Sunday games had many similarities, including the final 4-2 scores. But at the top end of a regular season tournament bracket, the only match in which final tournament placings are established is the last one.
After winning the first game of the championship match, the Commodores dropped the next two when the talented Bearkats posted identical scores of 222. Vandy rallied to even things at 2-2, setting the stage for the pivotal moment in the tournament in Game 5.
The game was a white-knuckler with the Commodores clinging to a tiny lead based on a first frame open by SHU. That changed in the eighth when the dependable Wahner missed a makeable spare and the advantage swung to the Kats. As was the case in many games, it came down to the climatic 10th.
Sam Houston anchor Bea Hernandez went strike-spare for a 189 total, meaning Vandy’s Bulanova could pull out a win by striking out. The junior from Moscow, Russia, who led the NCAA last season in 10th frame doubles, began working her magic in a stone quiet settee. After the first two strikes, a 9 or a strike would be good enough and the All-American Commodore delivered her third strike of the frame for a dramatic, 191-189 win.
“I tried to make those just another shot,” Bulanova said. “You never get completely comfortable in those situations but I tried to make myself breathe. It was hot in there, the air conditioner was not working and my hand was sweating so I took a little more time getting my grip dried off.”
The Commodores’ come-from-behind win seemed to sap the spirit from the Bearkats, who suffered four opens in Game 6 to make it easier for Vanderbilt, which won 203-159 to claim the championship trophy.
Considering their high personal finishes, neither Wahner or Gainor seemed especially satisfied with their performance.
“There were some aspects of my game where I didn’t feel like myself,” Wahner admitted. “I left some pins out there with some poor spare shooting but things turned out ok; that’s the way the sport goes”
Gainor does not watch the scoreboard or keep track in her head, choosing to focus on the next shot,
“I had moments this weekend where I felt I was struggling with my first shot but I was making most of the spares. When I saw the scores after a match I was often surprised because they were better than I was feeling.”
Vanderbilt hosts its Music City Classic March 15-17 at the Smyrna Bowling Center. The tournament is annually one of the biggest, if not the biggest, on the collegiate circuit. Admission is free of charge with most of the nation’s top rated teams in action.