Defending the Crown: Vanderbilt Bowling wins Stallings Invitational

The No. 2 Commodores never lost en route to a second consecutive Stallings Invitational championship.


Vanderbilt Athletics

Vanderbilt bowling competes in a match during its fall 2021 season. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Jayce Pollard, Staff Writer

On a weekend in which men’s basketball beat Florida and baseball narrowly defeated UCLA, Vanderbilt Bowling made sure to uphold its end of the bargain with an utterly dominant performance. From start to finish in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Commodores displayed the signature mix of youthful energy, veteran leadership, elite depth and unrivaled talent that has propelled the squad to the championship match in their last seven tournaments. This time, unlike many of their last, it was also enough to take home the crown.

“We talk about a Vanderbilt standard and what our play should be,” head coach John Williamson said. “This team has done a remarkable job of playing at a Vanderbilt level all the time.”

Mabel Cummins, the team’s senior leader and one of the most accomplished bowlers in program history, had a similar explanation.

“What this team specifically brings is it just has so much talent on it compared to literally any year prior,” Cummins said. “It gives the coaches a lot of options and it gives us a lot of confidence.”

The competition started on Feb. 24 with a slate of five matchups that proved to be much better on paper than on the lanes. Vanderbilt breezed through Tusculum, No. 10 Maryland Eastern Shore, No. 21 Lincoln Memorial, Coppin State and No. 6 North Carolina A&T without breaking much of a sweat.

The only troublesome match of the day came against unranked Coppin State. Though the Commodores trailed for much of the match, a steady dose of Mabel magic in the final two games put Vanderbilt ahead for a 931-904 victory. Following all five games, Vanderbilt led the tournament field by a colossal 230 pins.

“The Coppin State match on Friday was a wake-up call,” Williamson said. “The thing I like about this team is that whether it’s Coppin State, McKendree, Nebraska or whoever, they don’t really panic.”

Saturday’s field of competition was, admittedly, not of the same caliber that the Commodores were used to seeing. Vanderbilt stumbled a bit in the opener against Florida A&M but otherwise trounced Howard, Norfolk State, Belmont Abbey and No. 9 Sam Houston State.

Because of unfortunate circumstances regarding the Delaware State bowling team, the tournament was modified last minute to feature an additional round-robin match on Sunday morning. Thanks to a heroic 246 pins by Amanda Naujokas, the Commodores made quick work of No. 22 Tulane in the impromptu match-up and finished round-robin play far-and-ahead the top team in the field.

Vanderbilt began bracket play with a semi-final rematch against No. 10 Maryland Eastern Shore. The Commodores started the best-of-seven series strong with a 209-175 victory in game 1 before narrowly edging-out the Shore Hawks 182-179 in game 2.

After another narrow victory in game 3, Vanderbilt broke open game 4 with strikes in the opening three frames. After a pin left on the lane in the fourth frame, the Commodores got back to business with a streak of four consecutive strikes to ultimately blow the doors off Maryland Eastern Shore 246-176. Just like that, Vanderbilt was back to its seventh consecutive championship series.

Between the Commodores and a second straight Stallings Invitational championship lay a rematch with No. 9 Sam Houston State. Unfortunately for the Bearkats, it would’ve taken four near-perfect games to deny the Commodores another trophy.

Game 1 was a bloodbath in which Vanderbilt strung together six consecutive strikes in frames 5-10 and mollywhopped Sam Houston State 243-146. And then Vanderbilt did it again. Another six strikes in frames 5-10; another monumental victory.

The momentum carried over into game 3 as Vanderbilt led with strikes in the opening three frames before coming back down to Earth. Regardless, the Bearkats had been well buried by this point, so even regression to the mean wasn’t enough to forestall a 3-0 Vanderbilt lead.

Most teams up 3-0 in a championship series would probably relax — especially if that team had bulldozed 12 straight opponents on the weekend. But, most teams aren’t Vanderbilt, and Vanderbilt had something to prove after six championship appearances had only led to one tournament championship this season. So they pushed harder.

The first frame of game 4 didn’t result in a strike, but the second did. Then the third. Then the fourth. Then on and on until the eight frame. The amount of talent it takes to throw one strike is immense. The amount of discipline it takes for five different bowlers to throw seven strikes in a row is almost unfathomable.

At the end of the game, Vanderbilt led 268-193, and another tournament championship was added to the program’s vaunted history.

The key according to those that played: depth.

“Only five bowlers are in a match at once officially, but on any pattern we could easily have seven people that play,” Cummins said. “If I’m not shooting the scoring pace, I know that I have teammates that do have a good look on the pattern and can be subbed in if needed.”

That wasn’t the only hardware taken home over the weekend, as Cummins finished atop the individual standings for her second straight Stallings Invitational. Joining her on the all-tournament team was freshman Victoria Varano who finished fifth.

“Right now she’s in a zone,” Williamson said of his star senior. “She’s about as good of an anchor as we’ve ever had.”

What made the performance even more miraculous is that Cummins was playing through an injury.

“It was a crack on my thumb,” Cummins said of her apparent shooting discomfort. “We patched over it and put new skin and super glue over it, but I got a crack elsewhere on my thumb and it just snowballed.”

Vanderbilt has almost a full month off to heal before hosting the Music City Classic — the final regular season tournament of the year — at the Smyrna Bowling Center from March 17-19. The event will be open to students and supporters to attend.