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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.

Las Vegas Redemption Arc: Vanderbilt Bowling goes 1-1 in opening day of NCAA Final Four

After falling short to Arkansas State, the Commodores bounced back with a win over McKendree that keeps their championship hopes alive.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt bowling went 1-1 on a busy first day of the NCAA Final Four on April 14, 2023 (Vanderbilt Athletics).

Editor’s note: Vanderbilt Athletics sponsored a trip to Las Vegas, Nevada, for Staff Writer Jayce Pollard, granting him on-site access to the team’s day-to-day activities for journalistic purposes.

At times it was ugly. Many times it was anxiety-inducing. But, when time expired, the Commodores found themselves moving on.

“I’m really proud of the resiliency of this group,” head coach John Williamson said. “We knew what was at stake and what it was going to take [to win].”

No. 2 Vanderbilt Bowling opened up the Final Four with a match against No. 3 Arkansas State. The tournament uses the same double-elimination, mega-match format as the NCAA Regionals – meaning that teams play a traditional match and a Baker match. If those matches are tied, then the teams advance to a Baker best-of-seven series.

The Commodores began with a lineup of Amanda Naujokas, Alyssa Ballard, Jennifer Loredo, Victoria Varano and Mabel Cummins. Loredo — a West Coast native who’s bowled in Las Vegas before — got the nod over 2nd-Team All-American Caroline Thesier and 3rd-Team All-American Paige Peters after a strong performance in practice.

“In practice yesterday, she came off the approach and I was like ‘Welcome home, Jen [Loredo],” associate head coach Josie Barnes said. “She proved that she deserves to be there.”

Vanderbilt started off slow in the traditional match. Naujokas bowled first and left a pin on the lane in the first of an uncharacteristic 7 opens for Vanderbilt.

While the Commodores were still settling in, Arkansas State was knocking down strike after strike. In fact, it took until 20 frames into the match for the Red Wolves to have their first open.

By the time Vanderbilt started to get into a rhythm — largely thanks to the stellar play of freshmen Victoria Varano and Alyssa Ballard — Arkansas State had already built a sizeable lead. At the end of the match, Vanderbilt trailed 1,059-1,015 and dropped to 0-1 in the mega-match. Varano finished as the only Commodore without an open and led the team with 219 pins.

Vanderbilt’s rhythm from the end of the traditional match carried over to the start of the Baker. Three strikes to open game 1 vaulted the Commodores to a 213-202 victory despite a late comeback attempt from Arkansas State.

The Red Wolves howled back in game 2 with eight strikes in the opening nine frames. Though the Commodores only left one open and managed six strikes of their own, there was nothing that could be done to overcome the torrential downpour of strikes from Arkansas State. That left Vanderbilt behind 459-436 after two games.

With the Red Wolves still on fire, game 3 looked as if it could end the series prematurely. Vanderbilt trailed significantly before Loredo, Varano and Cummins combined for five strikes down the stretch to keep the game close and the match manageable.

That momentum carried over to game 4 as Naujokas opened with a strike. Then the bottom fell out. The freshman Ballard hit six pins then two to leave an open in the 2nd frame. A mixture of strikes and spares kept the game semi-competitive through the middle frames, but another open by fellow freshman Varano ended any hopes of a Vanderbilt comeback. The Commodores dropped the game 215-178 in their worst showing of the day.

Trailing by 73 pins, Vanderbilt needed a miracle in game 5 to win the Baker and keep their mega-match hopes alive. Though Arkansas State underperformed with two opens and only a handful of strikes, the Commodores only managed to win by 24 pins. That ended the Baker 1,094 – 1,045 and the mega-match 2-0.

“They were just nervous, which is to be expected,” Barnes said. “[This tournament is] what they’ve worked their whole careers for.”

That placed Vanderbilt in a win-or-go-home mega-match with No. 1 McKendree. Just two games into the tournament, either the top team in the sport or the National Player and Coach of the Year were going to be sent home. Thus is the chaos of the Final Four.

The coaching staff opted for a change entering the second match. Loredo moved into the leadoff spot instead of Naujokas — who was subbed out for Thesier in the third position. 

Both teams traded strikes in the opening frame of the traditional match before Vanderbilt found itself in yet another funk. Unfortunate splits led the Commodores to settle for three opens in the third frame, and strike inconsistency plagued Vanderbilt for much of the first half. Outside of Cummins, every Commodore left an open in one of the first five frames.

The vibe began to shift in the second half of the traditional as Loredo, Thesier and Cummins managed to string together strikes. By the eighth frame, the rhythm had become contagious: every single Commodore notched a strike. A frame later and three of them did it again. That allowed Vanderbilt to clinch its first lead of the game 875-866 entering the 10th and final frame.

“I work really hard and I know the rest of our girls do too,” Loredo said. “That gave me the confidence to repeat shots.”

Loredo got the Commodores started with a strike and a spare to finish with a team-leading 233 pins. Ballard followed up with the same in her 10th frame. Though Thesier erred with an open after her second ball failed to curve, Varano pulled through with her third and fourth strikes in a row and effectively ended the match.

After Cummins went through the formality of a spare and a strike, Vanderbilt walked away with a 1,075-1,049 victory to clinch a 1-0 mega-match lead. The Commodores would not be going home that easily.

Vanderbilt entered the Baker match like it still had something to prove. Every Commodore knocked down a strike as the team scorched to a day-best 258 pins. Despite a slight downtick in production in game 2, the Commodores still held the lead 462-426 entering game 3.

The beginning of game 3 looked bleak for Vanderbilt as the team started with two opens. Rather than play damage control, the Commodores took fate into their own hands with a string of 5 strikes that had the South Point Bowling Center chanting “Black and Gold” as loud as Memorial Gymnasium.

Despite the change in momentum, the Commodores were unable to sustain a lasting lead. McKendree hit nine strikes in game 4 to cut the lead to 878-850 entering the final Baker game. The No. 1 team in the country would also not be going home that easily.

Even without an open, the Commodores fell behind after the first three frames with only one strike to their name. Varano — pushing past the freshman nerves — changed that with a strike. Cummins hit another, then Loredo and Ballard. Opens in frames 8 and 9 couldn’t alter the inevitable — Vanderbilt would be moving on and McKendree would be heading home.

“I like being under pressure,” Varano said. “[Those are] some of the moments where I show up.”

With the win, the Commodores move on but do so with zero margin for error. Vanderbilt will play Nebraska on April 15 at 11:00 a.m. CST for a shot at the national title.

“We’re alive another day,” Williamson said. “This is Vegas.”

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About the Contributor
Jayce Pollard
Jayce Pollard, Non-revenue 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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