Viva Las Vegas: Vanderbilt Bowling finishes second at Stormin’ Blue and White Vegas Classic

After two losses to No.1 McKendree, the Commodores ended as the runner-up for the third consecutive tournament.

For+the+third+tournament+in+a+row%2C+the+Commodores+came+just+short+of+a+title.+%28Vanderbilt+Athletics%29.

Vanderbilt Athletics

For the third tournament in a row, the Commodores came just short of a title. (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Jayce Pollard, Staff Writer

No. 3 Vanderbilt Bowling returned from its month-long hiatus right where it left off. Quite literally, that is — the team exactly matched its Friday, Saturday and Sunday records from its last outing in a solid weekend performance at the Stormin’ Blue and White Vegas Classic.

Many of the team’s players found themselves in action prior to the start of the tournament thanks to the Team USA and Junior Team USA Trials hosted immediately beforehand. Senior Mabel Cummins and junior Jennifer Loredo were selected for Team USA and Junior Team USA, respectively.

The team got started on Jan. 8 with a quick dusting of unranked Spalding before moving to a slate of tough matchups against No. 10 Maryland Eastern Shore, No. 11 Maryville and No. 9 Louisiana Tech. Though all five starters — Alyssa Ballard, Caroline Thesier, Cummins, Paige Peters and Victoria Varano — played well in the opener, a dropoff in production by Thesier and Cummins spelled doom for the Commodores against the Hawks.

Thesier rebounded in a big way against Maryville as she boasted a remarkable 257 pins and led the team to a comfortable margin of victory. Following the win, head coach John Williamson subbed out freshmen Ballard and Varano for the more experienced Amanda Naujokas and Jennifer Loredo.

“You could sort of see the energy levels were deteriorating,” Williamson said about the rationale behind the switch. “We wanted to stay as fresh as we could and give everybody an opportunity.”

Sophomore Paige Peters had an even more succinct way to put it: “Everyone was exhausted.”

After the Commodores bested an unusually-error-prone Louisiana Tech squad, Williamson continued to tinker with the lineup by finding space for Amanda Kiefer and Kaylee Hitt. These reinvented lineups not only helped Vanderbilt to find the pins necessary for a 4-1 Friday finish but also allowed all nine healthy players on the roster to get valuable playing time.

“It’s nice to know that you can put everyone in and not have a significant dropoff,” Williamson said.

Vanderbilt took it up another notch on Saturday as it dominated all five teams it faced — including No. 15 Mount St. Mary’s, No. 16 Newman and No. 17 Tulane. No match got within 100 pins, and the Commodores averaged a blistering 1,061.6 pins per game on the day. Despite already being their third undefeated day of a young season, it was almost certainly their most dominant performance.

“We were all very cheerful,” Peters said regarding what made Saturday’s performance special. “We stayed together.”

A 9-1 record and weekend average of 1,040 pins per game put Vanderbilt in second place heading into bracket play behind only No. 1 — and defending national champion — McKendree. That lineup meant the Commodores would take on the Bearcats in the first round of the bracket with an auto-berth to the championship game on the line.

Vanderbilt headed into the match having lost to McKendree in its two matchups earlier this season. Seeking to right those wrongs, the Commodores hit strikes in frames six-through-eight to induce a comfortable victory in game 1. Though the margins tightened up a bit in game 2, the result was the same: a Vanderbilt victory.

Game 3 of the best-of-7 series was the first to get out of the Commodores’ hands as strikes failed to materialize in the middle and late game. Four consecutive strikes to open game 4 gave Vanderbilt an early edge, but a few minor miscues were all it took to drop 247-244 and equalize the series 2-2.

If the tight margin of game 4 wasn’t enough to cause heartburn, the two-point differential in the following game — which once again went in McKendree’s direction — was enough to have Commodore fans reaching for the Tums bottle. Having claimed a 3-2 series lead, McKendree was able to hold serve and use its veteran experience to ride out a comfortable and series-clinching victory in game 6.

“We just have to make sure our head is there and execute our shots better,” Peters said on how to overcome the McKendree hurdle. “I think we were just drowsy from the week that people had at trials.”

That sent Vanderbilt to a win-and-in match against No. 4 Nebraska — the teams’ first rematch since the Commodores bested them in mid-November. With every player bound and determined to force a revenge match against McKendree, Vanderbilt got off to a blistering start and posted its best result of the day in a 259-203 victory in game 1. To put it in perspective, 259 pins is the best finish the Commodores have had in any bracket game all season by more than 20 pins.

Game 2 saw Vanderbilt come back down to Earth as Cummins had to nail three strikes in the 10th frame to force a 203-203 tie. Then it was the Cornhuskers’ turn to shoot the lights out, and the series was equalized at 1.5-1.5 following game 3.

Five consecutive strikes in the middle frames allowed the Commodores to retake the series lead after game 4, and a nail-biting 215-214 finish in game 5 put them in a prime position to take the match. Nebraska forced a game 7 after Vanderbilt failed to materialize anything beyond a double in the sixth game, but the Commodores managed to take care of business with a set of three strikes in the 10th frame of the final. Back to McKendree the Commodores would go.

Game 1 of the tournament final was nearly as good for Vanderbilt as the first game against Nebraska. Four consecutive strikes opened an early lead that would have been insurmountable anyways, but the Commodores continued to pile it on with a litany of spares and a double in the sixth and seventh frames.

Strange things sometimes happen when 18-to-22-year-olds are asked to engage in high-intensity athletics for an entire weekend. Whether burnout or bad luck, something clearly afflicted the Commodores in game 2 as they posted a measly 156-pin total and allowed McKendree to tie the series.

Vanderbilt bounced back in game 3 with a decent 210-pin showing, but it wasn’t enough to recapture the lead from the veteran-laden Bearcats. That would be the case again in game 4 as both teams shot well below their averages — and their potential — in a costly 2-pin loss.

Vanderbilt capitalized on McKendree’s sudden funk in game 5 with a 202-182 victory that put the series record at 3-2; alas, without LeBron James, overcoming a 3-1 deficit still seemed improbable.

That improbability manifested itself in game 6 as the Bearcats regained their scoring touch and the Commodores continued to putter along. A 244-192 McKendree victory spelled the end of Vanderbilt’s chances to secure its first tournament title of the season and relegated them to an 0-4 record against the reigning national champions.

“We just need to focus on cheering for things without having something to cheer for,” Peters said of how the team can improve. “We tend to get quiet if we’re not doing something big, and we need to focus on being loud and staying in the moment.”

Vanderbilt Bowling will take a weekend off before flying out to Deptford, New Jersey, for the Northeast Classic on Jan. 20-22.