Added motivation: Vanderbilt bowling takes second at MOTIV Ladyjack Classic

Behind individual honors for Alyssa Ballard and a perfect 300-pin performance last Friday, the Commodores looked the part of one of the sport’s elite programs.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt Bowling finished in second place at the MOTIV Ladyjack Classic (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Jayce Pollard, Staff Writer

Vanderbilt bowling took a significant step forward last weekend, Nov. 11-13, at the MOTIV Ladyjack Classic in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The coaching staff theorized that the team’s sloppy mistakes in the season opener could be attributed to first-tournament jitters; and, given an 11-3 record and second-place finish in Wisconsin, they seem to have been correct.

Friday’s five placement matches featured steep competition for the Commodores as they played 4 teams in the top 15 of the NTCA Rankings. The team stuck with the same starting five of Alyssa Ballard, Mabel Cummins, Paige Peters, Caroline Thesier and Victoria Varano that they started and finished with two weeks prior.

In the first five-game set against No. 9 Youngstown State, Cummins and Thesier were borderline perfect with pin totals of 257 and 259, respectively. The team’s cumulative total of 1,149 pins was higher than any result from the season opener and was easily enough to dispatch with the Penguins.

The Commodores then moved on to play No. 15 Maryville in what easily could have been a back-to-Earth performance. Instead, the starting lineup hit strike after strike after strike; and, heading into the 10th frame, all that stood between the team and a perfect game was three strikes by the freshman Varano. Never one to be spooked by even the brightest of lights, the newcomer sank three consecutive strikes to put the Commodores at 300 pins for only the sixth time in program history.

“When Tori [Victoria Varano] went up for the last shot, the energy was really palpable,” Thesier said. “When it happened, it truly was pure joy to accomplish something like that.”

Even with a regression in the other four matches of the five-game set, the 300 pins were more than enough to put away Maryville. With final pin totals of 1,102 and 1,185, Vanderbilt kept that same intensity in the following matches against North Central College and No. 6 Arkansas State.

Friday’s placement matches ended with a showdown that could potentially be repeated at the NCAA Championship in April—No. 1 McKendree against No. 2 Vanderbilt. A strong performance by Peters was enough to keep the game close, but reversion back to the mean ultimately sapped Vanderbilt of the ability to come away with a victory.

The Commodores entered Saturday with a record of 4-1 and, thanks to the McKendree loss, something to prove. They left with a combined record of 9-1 that included knocking off No. 25 Newman, No. 18 Wisconsin Whitewater and No. 3 Nebraska. Each series featured an impressive offensive performance from Vanderbilt as the team only finished below 1,000 pins once.

The victory against the Cornhuskers, coming at the end of the matchday, was certainly the most significant. Thesier led the team with 235 pins and all players finished at 195 or above. With a 225-pin performance from Ballard, the freshman—playing in only her second collegiate competition—secured the Individual Championship as the player with the highest average in the entire tournament field.

“The thing they have is a consistency about them that it’s very hard to have at 18,” head coach John Williamson said of what makes this freshman class so special. “We hope to have sophomores, juniors and seniors with that kind of control.”

Sunday featured the first instance of a new tournament format made permissible by a sport-wide regulations change in the off-season. Usually, teams spend all of the final day playing in a bracket with seeding based on their performance in the prior two days. Instead, teams played three additional seeding matches followed by only the top two teams—determined by the cumulative pin total from all 13 matches—playing for the championship in a final match.

Vanderbilt continued playing strong in its first two matches against No. 20 Lewis University and Carthage College. Peters in particular had strong performances that anchored the rest of the squad through a close victory against Lewis and a much wider margin against Carthage.

“This team is one of my favorites because our [group] dynamic is so strong,” Thesier said. “The bond that we have with each other is one that I’ve never experienced.”

With a rematch with McKendree effectively guaranteed by the start of the final placement series against No. 4 Stephen F. Austin, the Commodores found it hard to muster the motivation for one last push. The team trailed the entire way and finished with a 999-944 loss in their worst performance by pin total on the weekend.

Despite the loss, Vanderbilt proceeded to the best-of-seven championship match as the No. 1 seed facing the aforementioned McKendree. Four consecutive strikes in the fourth-through-seventh frames were enough for the Commodores to take game 1 by a 29-pin margin. Game 2 was a much tighter affair, with Vanderbilt needing three strikes in the 10th frame to tie the game at 206-206. This put the Commodores up 1.5-0.5 on the series after two games.

An early hot streak saw Vanderbilt string together five consecutive strikes to take a quick lead in game 3. Though points were left on the board later in the match, it still wasn’t enough for the Bearcats to overcome the initial deficit, and Vanderbilt went up 2.5-0.5.

With three games played in the series, the Commodores only needed to win one more to force, at worst, a winner-take-all game 8. Two more wins, or one more and a tie, would take the crown outright without the extra frames. And, yet, it wasn’t to be.

The strikes dried up in game 4 as McKendree clinched an ugly 198-172 victory. Vanderbilt found consistency in games 5 and 6 as the team totalled 214 pins in each, but the Bearcats found themselves in an even better groove. Just like that, the Commodores found themselves facing elimination.

“There was more or less an attempt to force things to happen,” Williamson said. “When you get into championship matches, you have to figure out ways to not do too much.”

Balls were forced, makeable shots were missed and the Commodores fell 24 pins short in game 7. McKendree clinched the series 4.5-2.5 and, with it, the tournament crown. Assuredly, this will not be the last match between these two teams this season.

“Nobody sets out and says it would be great if we struggled, but those kinds of things are helpful,” Williamson said. “We can’t just come in and think that people will cave.”

Vanderbilt Bowling will be back in action on Nov. 18-20 for the UMES Hawk Classic in Millsboro, Delaware. You can watch every match live on the Vanderbilt Athletics YouTube channel.