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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Back to Back: Vanderbilt bowling claims second consecutive Southland championship

The Commodores blanked Youngstown State to claim their fourth conference title in program history.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt bowling poses with the Southland Bowling Championship trophy on March 27, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Perhaps a No. 4 NTCA ranking is a bit too low for Vanderbilt bowling. Through a season of ups and downs, the Commodores have kept their eyes on one thing: a third national championship. After running undefeated through the tournament of the toughest conference in the country, they’re now one massive step closer to achieving that goal.

“This weekend showed what we’re capable of,” senior Sam Gainor said. “We handled it very well and mature, and if we can do that in two weekends the end of our year will look pretty good.”

The coaching staff agrees.

“You could see very early on that they were young and inexperienced and they made mistakes, but the one thing they had is a level of grit and resilience that isn’t really common,” head coach John Williamson said. “You sort of saw that there was something different about them as a group.”

The Southland Bowling League features a litany of stiff competition: No. 3 Sam Houston State, No. 6 Arkansas State, No. 7 Louisiana Tech, No. 8 Stephen F. Austin, No. 9 Youngstown State, No. 15 Tulane and Valparaiso. A double elimination format left some margin for error, but the Commodores didn’t need it. 

The tournament setup featured either two or three matches for each round. Teams competed first in a five-game traditional format—where each player bowls an entire game—then a five-game Baker format—where each player bowls two frames per game. If those were split 1-1, the teams went to a tiebreaker, best-of-seven Baker match. This is the same format as the upcoming national championship. 

As the No. 2 seed, the Commodores started off with Tulane, over whom the Commodores enjoyed a 4-0 advantage in the season series heading into Friday. Behind 226 pins from tournament MVP Mabel Cummins and 215 from Southland Bowling Newcomer of the Year Paige Peters, Vanderbilt started the series with a 1,016-974 victory in the traditional match.

That would be as close as it got for Tulane, as the Commodores led from start to finish in a clean sweep of the Baker match. After the first two games, Vanderbilt led by 75 pins, and it never looked back.

The Commodores moved on to play Arkansas State on Friday afternoon. Although Vanderbilt held a 4-2 advantage in the season series, the Red Wolves had managed to capture the last two matches—including a tight Sunday series just a week ago at the Music City Classic.

The ensuing match may not have been close, but it was still nothing if not electric. Cummins bowled an almost perfect game with 268 pins; Amanda Naujokas, who claimed All-Tournament First Team honors, had 255; Peters finished with 236; Gainor claimed 231; and Caroline Thesier rounded out the team with a laudable 215 pins. Individually, each one of those scores is impressive. Collectively, they resulted in a massive 1,205 pin count that was far too much for Arkansas State to handle.

Things tightened up in the ensuing Baker match, as the Red Wolves took an early lead with a 236-190 Game 1. Their advantage turned into a vice grip as the Commodores fell behind by 104 pins after Game 2 and stayed down by 55 following Game 3. Though they continued to chip away at the lead, they would ultimately fall 1,079-1,020 to send the series to a best-of-seven Baker match.

Game 1: Vanderbilt fails to secure a single strike and loses 218-191. Game 2: Anchor Paige Peters knocks down three strikes in the 10th frame to tie the series 1-1. Game 3: Consecutive strikes in frames 5 and 6 allow the Commodores to take a 2-1 lead. Game 4: Vanderbilt continues to roll and secures a 3-1 series margin. 

With Arkansas State on the verge of collapse, the Commodores finished the job with their strongest showing of the match, winning 267-201 and clinching the series against the Red Wolves.

The victory sent the Commodores into a Saturday match against Youngstown State in which the winner would secure a spot in the conference championship match while the loser would have to fight for survival in the double elimination format. Vanderbilt led the season series 4-2 beforehand.

The Commodores weren’t as hot in the traditional match this time around, but 200-pin performances by Cummins, Peters, Thesier and Naujokas kept the game close until the end. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite enough, and the Penguins took the match 1,044-1,039.

The Baker series began with fireworks on both sides as Vanderbilt tallied three consecutive strikes in frames 7-9 while Youngstown State only did so twice. The result: a 238-216 Vanderbilt deficit after Game 1. The Penguins then waddled on to one of their best performances of the weekend, knocking down nine strikes en route to a 269-219 victory in Game 2. The Commodores just couldn’t catch a break.

In Game 3, Vanderbilt bounced back tremendously with 276 pins to Youngstown State’s 172. Despite having trailed by 72 heading into the game, the Commodores walked away with a 32-pin lead. Youngstown State would cut that back down to just an 8-pin advantage by the start of Game 5.

With a chance to defend their title on the line, Vanderbilt responded as it has many times before this season. Thanks to tremendous play from both seasoned veterans like Cummins and stellar newcomers such as Peters, the Commodores showed once again why they’re a team to be taken seriously heading into the national championship. With Peters securing three strikes in frame 10 of Game 5, Vanderbilt sent the series to a tiebreaker.

Game 1: Five consecutive strikes in frames 3-7 were enough to take a 1-0 lead on Youngstown State. Game 2: Both teams dropped below 200 pins, but the Commodores found a way to win and take a 2-0 advantage. Game 3: Same story as before, with Vanderbilt struggling but still managing a victory. Game 4: The Commodores wouldn’t be denied any longer, as they wrote their own history and clinched a championship spot with a 225-205 victory.

I think it’s definitely a really special team,” Gainor said of Vanderbilt’s success. “It’s probably one of the deepest teams we’ve ever had.”

After Youngstown State beat Louisiana Tech in an elimination match, the Penguins marched back to face the Commodores for the championship. Because of the tournament format and their outstanding play all weekend, Vanderbilt would have to drop two series in order to lose the matchup. 

While only Cummins and Gainor managed to exceed 200 pins in the traditional match, decent enough play by the other three players allowed the Commodores to walk away with a 964-946 victory. All that was standing in the way of a second consecutive Southland title was the five-game Baker match.

Both teams found their rhythm in the match’s opening two games, as each squad managed at least 215 pins. Thanks to myriad strikes and the battle-tested confidence of the team, Vanderbilt found itself ahead by 29 pins after Game 2. The scoring slowed down a little bit on each side in Game 3, but Vanderbilt still managed to nurse its lead with a narrow 201-199 victory. 

“After our third Baker game, we did a quick little huddle and we said, ‘we’re almost there,’” Gainor said. “We can see it.”

With two games left to go, the Commodores just needed to play conservative and maintain their 31-pin advantage. They had the edge; they just needed to not blink. Then, Youngstown State got in its own way. 

In Game 4, the Penguins were ice cold, tallying a pitiful 159 pins in what was a do-or-die situation. That allowed Vanderbilt’s medial 209 pin count to balloon the team’s existing advantage. The result was an almost insurmountable Commodore lead heading into Game 5.

“You could tell they [Youngstown St.] looked more tired,” Gainor said. “We said if we just strike, if we leave something just make our spares, and this can easily go our way.” 

It would have taken a miracle for the Penguins to recapture the lead and force a tiebreaker match, and Vanderbilt simply wasn’t going to allow that to happen. Strikes in frames 4-10 ended any prayer of an upset. The job was done. Vanderbilt was walking away with its second consecutive Southland championship—and it had barely broken a sweat.

“They have the talent to be a legacy team—a team that five years from now or 10 years from now people say ‘Yeah, that 2022 team was really good,” Williamson said. “I felt like when they walked into the building they felt like they were the best team in the building.”

While the Commodores will clinch an automatic qualifier to the 16-team NCAA Championship tournament, they certainly wouldn’t have needed it to qualify for an at-large position anyway. The rest of the bracket will be revealed on Wednesday, March 30, at 4 p.m. CDT. Vanderbilt will have a weekend off to prepare for the start of the tournament on April 15. All games can be streamed via the Vanderbilt Athletics YouTube channel.

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About the Contributor
Jayce Pollard, Assistant Sports Specialist
Jayce Pollard (‘25) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy and economics and minoring in data science and Spanish. Outside of writing for The Hustler, you can catch Jayce trying to learn the rules of soccer, hating on the Arkansas Razorbacks and being chronically on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected]
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