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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.

One Shining Moment: Vanderbilt Bowling wins third national championship

A first round loss and a 3-1 finals deficit couldn’t stop the Commodores. Now, they’re national champions.
Vanderbilt Bowling celebrates their third national title. Photo courtesy of 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.

Live on ESPNU, Caroline Thesier knocked down a strike in the ninth frame of game 7 of the NCAA Championship. With that shot, Vanderbilt was mathematically guaranteed to become the first team in bowling history to overcome a 3-1 deficit.

This is how they did it.

Before the Commodores could rematch Arkansas State, the team had to get through Nebraska. Williamson opted to use the same lineup that brought success against McKendree the day prior — Jennifer Loredo, Alyssa Ballard, Thesier, Victoria Varano and Mabel Cummins.

The lineup proved immediately successful in the traditional match as every player striked on the first frame. After Nebraska left an open in the second, Vanderbilt got out to an early lead.

Freshmen nerves seemed to get the better of Ballard and Varano midway through the match as both suffered a pair of opens. Veteran experience from the rest of the roster helped keep the team afloat as Cummins and Thesier opened with six and seven strikes, respectively. Loredo — the breakout star of the tournament — also helped carry the offensive load with four strikes in the middle frames.

“I kind of shut everything off,” Thesier said. “I was just throwing shots and doing what I knew how to do.”

Buoyed by long strike streaks from Jillian Martin and Crystal Elliott, the Cornhuskers mounted a comeback in the later frames that cut the Vanderbilt lead to 848-823 entering the ninth. A Laredo strike momentarily revived the Commodores’ momentum before a pair of spares and an open threatened to unravel the game. With Martin bringing her streak to five and Elliott to four, Nebraska took the lead entering the final frame.

As the only Commodore to strike in the ninth, Loredo’s shots were the most valuable any Vanderbilt player would take. Just as important would be the tone she set for the rest of the frame. When she lined up to shoot, the South Point Bowling Center went completely silent.

Then it erupted. One strike. Then two. Then three. Laredo would finish the game with 10 strikes and two spares for a whopping 258 pins — her best performance in an already transcendent weekend.

An uncharacteristic open by Nebraska’s Kendyl Hofmeister firmly put the Commodores back in the mix. Two strikes by Ballard tightened it further, and a spare and strike by Theiser kept Vanderbilt in a solid position.

The only complication — Martin, and the extension of her streak to a monstrous six strikes. The Commodores still needed help as Varano stepped up to the lane in what had been a shaky match for the freshman. Nevertheless, in the biggest moment, the New Yorker delivered with two strikes and six pins.

Everything would hinge on the final bowlers. Nebraska’s Elliott — riding a four-strike streak — stepped forward and hit an unlucky combination of pins that left a wide split on the lane. The Cornhusker made the decision to go for a guaranteed pin rather than try for both and risk getting neither.

That left Nebraska up by 31 pins. That also left Cummins.

The National Player of the Year needed two strikes and two pins to secure a Commodore victory. If she messed up at all in the first two throws, the traditional match would be over.

The entire alley was on edge. Would the program legend — in her final day wearing the Black and Gold — be able to pull it off?

“I was just trying to listen to my teammates,” Cummins said. “They were telling me ‘we’re all with you’ and ‘take all the time you need and relax.”

Cummins knocked down the first strike. Then the second. The score: 1,109-1,108 in favor of Nebraska. All that was needed was one more pin. She knocked down seven.

Williamson had high praise for his star player.

“She is as put together of an individual as you’ll come across,” Williamson said. “There’s nobody else we’d rather have.”

Just like that, Vanderbilt went from staring down the barrel of a 1-0 deficit to boasting a 1-0 mega-match lead. Next came the Baker match.

Both teams cooled off in game 1 as Ballard and Cummins combined for six strikes that gave the Commodores a 195-180 match lead. Nebraska still looked shaken up in game 2 as they began with two spares. Vanderbilt recovered.

Thesier stepped up third and threw a strike. Varano followed, as did four more Commodores for a punishing six-strike streak that gave Vanderbilt a commanding lead. Even after a Nebraska catch-up in the final frames, the Commodores grew their match lead to 38 pins.

Even after a tough start to the day, the coaching staff never lost faith in its freshmen.

“There’s a reason they were in the lineup to begin with,” Williamson said. “They carry themselves like they have things under control.”

The first half of game 3 was as ugly as it got all day. With ten opportunities, the teams combined for three strikes, five spares and two opens. When Loredo hit a strike in the sixth frame, it was as if the Commodores had stumbled upon an oasis.

The oasis quickly grew into an ocean. Ballard hit all ten. Thesier hit all ten. Varano hit all ten. A four-strike streak was more than enough to end the game by the time Cummins entered.

The senior decided to hit three more. Vanderbilt won the game 238-189 and grew their match lead to 87. Barring a disaster in games 4 and 5, there would be no Nebraska comeback. None came.

By the final two frames of game 5, Vanderbilt felt comfortable enough to give a chance to Paige Peters — whose season has been largely derailed due to injuries — and Amelia Kiefer — the only senior besides Cummins. Both knocked down strikes to end the match and the series.

After an almost seven-hour break, the Commodores returned to action for the biggest game of the season. The Las Vegas final marked the sixth title game appearance in program history and the first since a loss to McKendree in 2019.

As opposed to the mega-match format, the finals is a Baker best-of-seven series. No traditional match. No cumulative Baker. It’s NBA Finals style — first to four wins brings home the banner.

Game 1 started with significant promise for the Commodores as Loredo opened with a strike. Ballard found herself in a tricky situation with an unfortunate 1-2-4-10 pin split; however, the freshman was able to overcome the shaky first shot and sink the spare. That would not be the last time Vanderbilt encountered the split.

After a Thesier strike, Varano found herself face-to-face with the same split. Though the freshman wasn’t able to execute the spare, a Cummins-Loredo double to follow kept the Commodores in the game.

Both teams struggled in the seventh frame as Arkansas State opened with a gasp-inducing gutterball. Vanderbilt wasn’t able to capitalize on the situation as Ballard encountered the same split once again and left one open.

The deadly split was not done terrorizing the Commodores. Varano saw it in the ninth frame and opened again. Then, an eerily-similar 2-4-8-10 found its way to Cummins. The lack of a strike in the 10th frame sealed the loss for the Commodores, and Arkansas State took game 1 191-156.

Vanderbilt tweaked its lineup for game 2 by switching positions for Varano and Thesier. The freshman clearly felt more comfortable in third as she knocked down both strikes; at the same time, Thesier’s two strikes in game 1 were converted to two spares for game 2. 

Throughout the entirety of the game, Vanderbilt couldn’t manage to string together two consecutive strikes. A couple of Arkansas State doubles pulled the Red Wolves ahead for good by the time Cummins entered for the 10th frame.

The final result: a 189-171 Arkansas State win and a 2-0 series lead.

Vanderbilt made another lineup switch in game 3 by bringing Amanda Naujokas in for Ballard as the second bowler. The substitution paid dividends once again as Loredo and Naujokas combined for a double to start the game.

“Scared money doesn’t win,” Williamson said of the lineup changes. “If you’re afraid to do something different, you will have the same result.”

Despite a Varano open, a pair of strikes by Laredo and Thesier kept Vanderbilt holding a slight lead. The biggest factor — an easy spare turned open by Arkansas State in the fifth frame.

With the game still in the balance, Varano, Thesier and Cummins teamed up for the Commodores’ first turkey of the series. Even as Cummins spared the second opportunity of the 10th frame, the Red Wolves were not able to overcome the disastrous open. 

Vanderbilt would win 215-198 and cut the series deficit to 2-1.

“A lot of our team has history here [South Point Bowling Center],” Loredo said. “This is essentially like my second home.”

The first half of game 4 would be an effective wash. Despite four spares to open for Arkansas State, the Commodores couldn’t string together strikes and failed to lead by more than five pins midway through the game.

Disaster struck immediately upon resumption. Loredo — for the first time in the series — left pins on the lane. Naujokas steadied the Commodores with a strike, but another open by Varano reset Vanderbilt to square one.

Following a pair of spares in the ninth frame, Vanderbilt entered the 10th with a 14-point deficit. An Arkansas State strike made the comeback unlikely. A Mabel Cummins open made it impossible.

Advantage Red Wolves: 3-1.

“It’s a very tough position to be in Baker when you’re up 3-1 and you feel like you’ve already won something,” Williamson said. “It’s very hard to stop backpedaling once you start.”

Loredo opened game 5 with yet another strike. The series was not over. Arkansas State would double to end the first half. Then they would open twice to begin the second. The series was not over.

Loredo hit another strike. The series was not over. Arkansas State opened again. The series was not over. Cummins opened the 10th frame with two strikes as Arkansas State opened for a fourth time. The series was not over.

Vanderbilt would win game 5. Advantage Red Wolves: 3-2.

For the 10th time in 11 frames, Loredo striked. An Arkansas State double to open didn’t make things easy, especially after a Thesier open in the fourth frame.

But then it was Mabel Cummins time. And Mabel Cummins delivers.

A strike by Cummins. A strike by Laredo. A spare by Amanda. A strike by Varano. A spare by Thesier. Back to Mabel Cummins time.

Arkansas State strikes. Cummins knocks down eight. Arkansas State strikes again. Cummins spares. Arkansas State strikes again. Cummins needs five pins. She gets all 10.

The series was not over.

Vanderbilt would win game 6. Series tied: 3-3. Game 7 began as a mirror match. Vanderbilt spare. Arkansas State spare. Commodore strike. Red Wolf strike. 

The dam broke in the third frame. Varano hit seven pins. Arkansas State hit six. Varano converted her spare. Arkansas State didn’t.

The series was not over. 

Thesier capitalized with a strike. So did Cummins. Arkansas State hit nine pins in the first throw of the fifth frame. Then they whiffed on the second.

The series was not over.

Loredo opened. Naujokas spared. Then the 3-1 split returned — but for Arkansas State. The old nemesis of the Commodores plagued the Red Wolves, but this time it was fatal.

“We’re settled,” Loredo said. “This is good. This is home.”

Varano spared. Thesier striked. It was over. 

The Vanderbilt Commodores were crowned the 2023 NCAA Bowling national champions.

“I felt like deep down, if we were able to calm ourselves, we would win that match,” Williamson said. “I kept telling them that something good’s going to happen.”

Cummins earned All-Tournament honors for her effort. Laredo won Tournament MVP for hers.

It was a storybook ending for Cummins — perhaps the greatest Commodore in the history of not just Vanderbilt Bowling, but all of Vanderbilt Athletics.

“Bowling has been my world for the last four years,” Cummins said. “This group is one that I knew from the beginning was special.”

Nobody knows what next year will hold. But one thing is undeniable: These are your national champions.

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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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1 year ago

It was great having you on site for the tournament. Thank you for supporting the team!

1 year ago

Sure would be nice if you had given the pin totals for each game.