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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.

2023 Season Preview: Vanderbilt Bowling

Vanderbilt’s most decorated program isn’t trying to defend its national title. It’s looking to win a whole new one.
Vanderbilt Athletics
Vanderbilt Bowling enters the 2023-2024 season with the intent to repeat as national champions. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Vanderbilt University isn’t known for its athletics. A common refrain during football season is that it’ll soon be basketball season. Then, when it’s basketball season, it’ll soon be baseball season. If baseball’s out of luck, then there’s always next year.

The problem with this mentality is that there’s a successful program that starts its season in October and doesn’t conclude until May. That program has three of Vanderbilt’s six team sport national titles — including the first ever back in 2007 and the most recent just earlier this year.

That program is Vanderbilt Bowling.

Led by head coach John Williamson since its inception in 2004, the Commodores are fresh off their third national championship following a heart-pounding 3-1 comeback against Arkansas State in Las Vegas. In the 2022-2023 season, Williamson took home his fourth National Coach of the Year award, then-senior Mabel Cummins won National Player of the Year and four other players were named to All-American teams.

Williamson, associate head coach Josie Barnes and those four All-Americans have all returned for the 2023-2024 season — which the Commodores will begin ranked No. 1 with 51 of 56 first-place votes. Cummins has moved on to graduate school but has joined the staff as an assistant. But beyond Cummins, whose status as the team’s scoring anchor and the best player in the country was unquestioned, lies another loss that, behind the scenes, may be just as consequential: Amelia Kiefer.

“I don’t think people realize how much [Amelia] did and how hard she is going to be to replace,” Barnes said. “Whether that was talking someone through a moment or running to get spare balls … [she was] that person that just kind of stepped up and did what needed to be done.”

Inheriting the position of de facto team leaders are seniors Amanda Naujokas, Caroline Thesier and Jennifer Loredo. Naujokas was crucial to the Commodores’ 2023 National Championship comeback as she was substituted in for Alyssa Ballard in game 3 following an early 2-0 Arkansas State lead. With the then-junior from New York in the lineup, Vanderbilt went 4-1 in the remaining games and took home the title.

Thesier won Second Team All-American honors last season and played every frame of the championship series — including hitting the strike in the ninth frame of game 7 that mathematically guaranteed the Commodores’ third title. Loredo was the biggest surprise of the postseason as she took home Final Four Tournament MVP for her scorching performances on both days of competition. In the championship match, Loredo — who had not started a tournament all season before Las Vegas — hit 11 strikes in 14 frames to lead Vanderbilt to the promised land at a venue not far from her hometown of Fresno, Calif.

All three seniors will be expected to step up both on and off the lanes as Vanderbilt looks to make up for the losses of Cummins and Kiefer. Thesier will almost certainly put up season-long stats that land her on another All-American team, but the North Carolinian has displayed scoring inconsistencies and a spare-shooting problem that have thus far led her to be a high-upside option rather than the anchor of an offense.

Naujokas and Loredo will be given plenty of opportunities to see if their strong postseason performances can translate consistently to regular-season play. Through the 10-tournament regular season, the Commodores will make plenty of trips out east to venues frequented by Naujokas, but only a January trip to Las Vegas will put Loredo in familiar territory.

“From a playing standpoint, Mabel has big shoes to fill. From a leadership standpoint, Amelia has big shoes to fill,” Williamson said. “We have the talent to fill them, it’s more or less that we have to get the experience to do that.”

Perhaps the biggest wildcard on the team is the junior class. Consisting of Kailee Channell, Kaylee Hitt and Paige Peters, the collective has demonstrated high upside but problems staying healthy. Channell had a torn hip labrum that kept her sidelined for the entirety of the 2023 campaign. After winning National Freshman of the Year in 2021-2022, Peters returned to action last season and put together a Third Team All-American season despite playing through myriad hip and knee-related injuries. Because of her nagging afflictions, the then-sophomore only threw a single frame during the Commodores’ Final Four run.

“The big thing is I just want to be physically healthy,” Peters said when asked about what she’s focused on improving this year. “I don’t want a repeat of how I just fell down a rabbit hole last year [with] injury after injury.”

If Peters can stay healthy, she has the talent to not only lead the Commodores, but to be one of the most prolific scorers in the nation.

“Even last year, we’re talking about how she struggled through injuries, she was still a Third Team All-American,” Barnes said. “She was still one of the 15 best [players] in the country.”

Vanderbilt recruits at one of the highest levels in the country, but the strong performance of last year’s freshman class defied any reasonable expectations. Ballard won Third Team All-American honors and Southland Bowling League Newcomer of the Year while Victoria Varano took home an All-American Honorable Mention and, over the summer, was named to Junior Team USA. Both players started for Vanderbilt in the National Championship series.

“Honestly, I don’t really think about it,” Ballard said when asked about her individual success. “Last year, when I won Newcomer of the Year for the conference, I didn’t even know that was a thing until they announced it.”

What occupies more of the sophomore’s time is getting better.

“No matter what, there’s always something that you need to be working on,” Ballard said. “I worked a lot over the summer with fixing some stuff in my physical game with my push-away, and my swing and my steps.”

And, when asked about tangible goals for this year, the sophomore responded the same way as everyone else.

“We want to do it again,” Ballard said. “Once you win, you want to just keep winning. Even though we did win last year, and we had a pretty good year overall, we’re not done.”

If the Commodores are going to reach the mountaintop once again, it’s almost certainly going to require big contributions from this year’s incoming freshmen. Haley Lindley of Greenwood, S.C. and Natalie Kent of Newark, N.Y. are the newest additions to Vanderbilt’s loaded roster. 

Despite the abundance of talent already on the team, the pair are good enough to carve out roles on day one. Lindley is a member of Junior Team USA — alongside the aforementioned Varano — and finished in fifth place at the prestigious Junior Gold competition in 2022. Kent is a member of an accomplished bowling family and has finished in the top-16 at Junior Gold on four different occasions.

Both freshmen are already finding their footing with the Commodores.

“They fit the team dynamic,” Peters said of the freshmen. “It’s not like they’re coming in and they’re trying to form themselves into anything. They just fit right in.”

Kent offered a pretty simple explanation as to why they gel so easily.

“I had a bunch of friends here that I knew before I came,” Kent said. “Amanda [Naujokas] I was really close with. Me and Haley were best friends before we came here.”

Vanderbilt will get plenty of chances to test its mettle this season through 10 regular-season tournaments followed by the Conference USA Championship tournament. The Commodores, alongside the other eight teams in the former Southland Bowling League, have migrated to C-USA alongside Jacksonville State.

The season begins with the Warhawk Classic in Madison, Wis. from Oct. 20-22. The Commodores will face a relatively light field of competition in that tournament before embarking on a grueling schedule featuring a bevy of top-25 competition. Four tournaments will take place in the fall while the remainder will be in the spring. The regular season will conclude when Vanderbilt hosts the annual Music City Classic in Smyrna, Tenn. from March 15-17.

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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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