DALLAS — Vanderbilt and McKendree, the nation’s two highest-ranked teams, didn’t let being their relatively modest seeds get in the way of putting on a show in the title game of the Fightin’ Ladyjack Classic on Sunday afternoon.
The second-ranked Commodores defeated the top-ranked Bearcats for the second time in this tournament, this one for the tournament championship. The final score was 4-2 in the best-of-seven Baker format.
The two powerful programs entered the bracket play as the third and fourth seeds but turned on their firepower in the semifinals and kept the strikes raining throughout their tense match. Vandy had beaten Sam Houston State, 4-3, in one semifinal while McKendree had downed Nebraska by a similar margin.
In a classic match where mistakes were few and therefore magnified, the Commodores started fast, winning the first game 212-201. It may have been in Game 2 where a message was sent; McKendree was holding a small lead when Vanderbilt put together five strikes in succession – starting with Samantha Gainor in the four-hole and followed by Maria Bulanova, Emily Rigney, Jordan Newham and Adel Wahner.
That blitz was enough, with help from a 10th frame spare and strike by Bulanova, to snatch a high-end 236-224 win and take a 2-0 lead. However, the talented Bearcats remembered turnabout was fair play and despite Vandy putting six strikes in a row in Game 3, it wasn’t enough as McKendree prevailed 245-235. A score of 235 does not often lose many games.
McKendree evened things up in the fourth, setting the stage for Vanderbilt to come storming back in Game 5. Vandy had six strikes in the first seven frames and ended with bullseyes to win, 233-185. The Commodores were beneficiaries of two rare McKendree opens late in Game 6 to win 195-180 and take home their third team championship of the 2018-19 season. They had previously won the Hawk Classic and the Mid-Winter Classic.
Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson said he was pleased with the victory but was quickly focused on the details he thinks need improvement in the upcoming weeks.
“We need to figure out how to get off to faster starts,” Williamson said referring to the day’s opening traditional game loss to Nebraska in which Vandy could tally just 921 pins. “Errors and splits are part of the game but we need to minimize them. We had a few too many missed-makeable spares, lower first-ball counts and two 10th frame opens – things we must clean up. We need to quit giving opponents additional life when we have the chance to finish them off.”
Gainor was named to her second career all-tournament team based on her fifth place individual finish. The steady Michigan sophomore averaged 205.17 to trail the winner, Stephen F. Austin’s Carlene Beyer, who averaged 214.83. Bulanova was seventh, Wahner 11th in a balanced and steady Vanderbilt lineup.
Rigney was excellent in her lead-off role and Newham provided a big boost in the 2-spot. Rigney struck eight times against McKendree and Newham contributed seven strikes behind her, results not lost on Williamson.
“When you start Baker games on the right foot it bodes well,” he said. “I thought they gave us a big spark.”
Vanderbilt ended the tournament with a 9-4 win-loss record, equaling the best any team could muster in the 12-team field in which everyone was ranked in the Top 25. Two weeks ago, in Prairie View’s similar format with 11 other talented squads, Vandy had finished second after leading that event wire-to-wire.
The Sam Houston semifinal was highly competitive and demonstrated one reason why this year’s Vanderbilt team is perhaps more dangerous than prior Commodore units. This year’s Dores can string strikes – lots of them – and therefore never seem out of any game. On Sunday, with the title match score knotted at 3-3, Vanderbilt struck from the fourth frame through the eighth and ended with Bulanova striking out for an explosive 236-206 win.
The championship also snapped a mild Vanderbilt slump at this tournament; in three previous tries the best the Commodores had finished was fifth.
The team gets a welcome break in the schedule before it travels to New Jersey on March 1 for the Monmouth Invitational.