One season after authoring a fairytale ending to a superb year, Vanderbilt bowling came up just short in rekindling its postseason magic at the 2019 NCAA Bowling Championship.
“At the end of the day, with all the stuff we went through the last three days,” head coach John Williamson said last weekend, “it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Last Saturday, Vanderbilt fell shy of repeating as NCAA champions, dropping the final match of the NCAA Championship, 4-1, to Stephen F. Austin. The Commodores won the first game in the best-of-seven Baker format, 183-167, before the Ladyjacks responded with a Game 2 win that included six straight strikes. Stephen F. Austin then threw five strikes in a row to spark a win in Game 3.
That momentum carried Stephen F. Austin to four consecutive victories and the NCAA title, spoiling Vanderbilt’s NCAA repeat hopes. The Commodores had clawed their way back through the losers bracket following a Thursday opening loss to Sacred Heart. Their rally ran out of gas in the final match at RollHouse Wickliffe just outside Cleveland.
“We definitely put up a tough fight this entire tournament,” said sophomore Samantha Gainor. “[Against Stephen. F. Austin] we started off and won the first game. Then we struggled, tried to fight back, and we did pretty well. But it just wasn’t enough.”
Disappointment reverberated through Vanderbilt roster in the aftermath of Saturday’s title-game loss. But the Commodores’ 2018-19 season will still be remembered as a historic campaign in many respects. En route to earning the No. 1 overall seed at the NCAA Bowling Championship, the Commodores tied a program record with five tournament titles in 2018-19, including three in a row during the spring semester.
Vanderbilt compiled a nation-leading 97 regular-season victories against just 35 losses while leading the NCAA in RPI. In all, the Dores entered NCAAs with a 33-19 regular-season record against the seven other teams in the championship field. Vanderbilt registered its surge despite missing All-American Kristin Quah for a chunk of the season due to injury.
“The players that we have are pretty incredible,” Williamson said. “They put up a fight this whole year, I think we were undervalued most of the year. Most people didn’t give us credit for the stuff we were doing, but we just kept working and kept our head down. Outside validation isn’t really important, but it is nice to see, especially when you work hard to get it.”
In some ways, Vanderbilt found its validation in dominating the NCAA’s postseason awards. Junior anchor Maria Bulanova was named NCAA Player of the Year, joining former All-American and current associate head coach Josie (Earnest) Barnes (2008-09) as the only Commodores to earn that honor. Gainor and junior Adel Wahner garnered Third Team All-America recognition, while Quah repeated as NCAA Elite 90 winner, given to the player with the highest grade-point average in the tournament. Quah boasts a 3.97 GPA in biomedical and electrical engineering.
Williamson, meanwhile, brought home NCAA Coach of the Year honors for the second time in his career. But he credited his roster for putting together a dominant season, particularly seniors Jordan Newham and Quah.
“This group has done a fantastic job of creating a level of dialogue with each other, and with us coaches, that’s more direct,” Williamson said. “That’s hopefully something that will be around forever. You have to work to keep it and maintain it, but the fact that we can have direct conversations with each other about comfortable and uncomfortable things, you just have people who will take the bull by the horns and say, this is what we’re going to do. I think that’s phenomenal.
“We preach accountability. These girls have bought into it, and our team is better for it. I think this senior class of Jordan and Kris is part of the reason why we’ve got it. They’ve done a pretty good job of trying to instill it.”
In his 15 seasons at Vanderbilt, Williamson has won more national titles (two) than any coach in Commodore athletics’ history. But he is quick to point out that an NCAA championship is not always the focal point of his teams’ approaches as they slog through each season. Instead, Williamson said it’s often about finding the right mix, a process that will begin a new next fall for Vanderbilt.
“In some ways, it’s not necessarily about winning or losing an NCAA final,” Williamson said. “To us, it’s about trying to create a team that can withstand the journey to get there. This sophomore and junior class, they have the potential to be the winningest class in Vanderbilt history in the postseason. Now it’s about trying to get back to what we had with the seniors we’re about to lose.
“We’ve got a lot of things we can do to get better. I think we still have a long way to go, but by no means are we ready to say this is the best we can do.”