On the way to Vanderbilt going undefeated and earning the No. 1 seed at the Columbia 300 Music City Classic there was tension, the kind of drama that often happens when talented teams match skills and battle for momentary supremacy.
As Vanderbilt and McKendree worked their way through the first eight qualifying rounds, the nation’s top two ranked teams had risen to the top of this 29-team field and everyone could be forgiven for peeking ahead.
Clinging to a slim, eight pin lead after three bowlers had completed their games, Vanderbilt’s Samantha Gainor and McKendree’s Taylor Bailey stepped to the front. With the other matches completed, the entire center gained an eerie silence as everyone crowded around lanes 41 and 42.
Bailey delivered a strike. Advantage Bearcats. Gainor steps up…strike. Advantage Vandy. Complete silence. Bailey…strike. Gainor…strike! Bailey…another strike. Gainor…8, and 8 is enough. The gifted anchors traded spares and Vandy’s Maria Bulanova needing just four pins for the win knocked down eight for a thrilling if not artistic 935-929 win.
It was the sixth time in eight matches this year that Vanderbilt has beaten the talented Bearcats.
All that drama and more simply set the stage for Sunday’s championship bracket, in which the two teams will go at it once again with the winner in the best four of seven Bakers getting a pass into the championship game. On the other side of the title bracket, North Carolina A & T meets Arkansas State.
“It was one of those moments,” Gainor recounted, “and you don’t have a lot of those moments where you control the outcome. These are the moments we live for and I went up there thinking “alright, it’s the same shot. After she threw the first one I thought ‘if she can strike, I can strike.'”
Every coach wants tough-minded competitors and Vandy’s John Williamson is no different.
“Sam is a competitor,” Williamson says. “You want kids that want the ball when the heat is on and Sam is one of those that wants to make the shot. She has shown time and time again that she doesn’t shy from the opportunity. Nobody has a 100% success rate but at the same time, we are fortunate that we have Sam and following her is Maria; they both thrive on the idea of being the one to seal it off.”
Williamson likes Gainor’s uncomplicated process.
“Sam is good at getting in the moment and repeating,” he says. “One of the best things she does is not over-analyzing. Some kids start thinking “what about this or what if that happens” and Sam doesn’t do that.”
Williamson liked the spark Emily Rigney gave the team in the McKendree match, coming off the bench in the sixth frame to throw four strikes and ignite her teammates.
“I knew I just had to do my job,” said Rigney, the junior lefty who was the NCAA Championship’s co-MVP last spring. “It was bigger than me and if I was able to do what I could do I knew the other girls will follow. I try to bring energy and if I can do it Kris and others will follow.”
Rigney had been taken out of rotation earlier in the day when her play slipped but she came back with a vengeance.
“I went down and took a few practice shots,” Rigney said. “I accepted what had happened and I decided I’m going to be different now.”
Individually, Vanderbilt anchor Maria Bulanova continued to impress. The junior All-America anchor topped all 172 bowlers with her hefty 235.20 average. Gainor crafted a slick 260 in the day’s finale against Stephen. F. Austin – including the front seven – to finish fifth in this strong field with a 225.80 average.
For as many positives as an arm-chair fan could list, Williamson’s list included some concerns.
“If you look at the first five frames of our first four games, they were substandard,” he noted. “We had many more missed-makeables today than yesterday – three or four times as many. We have to figure out how to get two clean days together. Today was good but by no means perfect.”
Vanderbilt’s four Saturday wins came over North Central, Prairie View, McKendree and SFA. It also had a bye round created with the uneven number of teams in the field.
It promises to be an interesting Sunday.
“What we are focused on is to come out and be the best Vanderbilt team we can be,” Williamson says. “That’s all we can control.”