It’s a quarter past twelve on the first day of the fall break, and the Vanderbilt bowling team is rolling into its third hour of practice.
Freshman Paige Peters nails the last pin of a spare in the middle. As she walks back to the group, she gets a high-five from Amelia Kiefer, who calmly walks to the track and knocks off her second consecutive strike. The entire team applauds as Kiefer turns to the monitors on the back wall to check her stats. This is reasonabletypical of a practice game: almost every frame is a strike or a spare. The team is just that good.
In fact, Vanderbilt is so good that it ranks number 4 in the country in number one National Tenpin Coaches Association poll of the year. However, if you were to talk to the players or the coaches, you would think that this team still has a long way to go.
“I always think something can be done better, something can be done better,” head coach John Williamson said of his mentality. “If we think we’re going to be pretty good in October, we’re not going to be as good in April.”
Last April, the Commodores season ended on a disappointing note. After winning the Southland Bowling League conference tournament, the team lost to eventual national champion Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the National Collegiate Bowling Championship. In the past four seasons, Vanderbilt has even won or knocked out the national championship by the team that did.
That is also the expectation for this year.
“Winning a national championship. That’s our goal every year,” said junior Mabel Cummins. “I haven’t won a national championship and I want to do that at Vanderbilt before my time as a student athlete is up.”
Cummins, who? last year was the Southland Bowling League Tournament MVP and a second-team All-American, is the most decorated player on a roster brimming with talent. Thanks to the return of college graduate Samantha Gainor, Vanderbilt’s roster is made up of 11 players, spread almost perfectly across each grade. And thanks to the group’s top talent, everyone has the potential to play a part this season.
“This feels like the most talented roster we’ve had from one to eleven in the sense that we really have no idea what our line-up will be next week,” associate head coach Josie Barnes said during practice.
This depth of roster is reflected in the fact that the Commodores have not one, but two players returning from last year’s All-Southland First Team, featuring the aforementioned tournament MVP Cummins and senior Angelica Anthony. Even freshman Paige Peters, Kaylee Hitt and Kailee Channel, all three of whom are already well acquainted with the bright lights of the national league, will be competing for game time starting October 22.
It doesn’t matter who the Commodores play in their first tournament, the expectation will be the same.
“We go to every tournament with the expectation that we will compete for a championship,” Williamson said. “The Tulane tournament next weekend is not the national championship, but we’re going into it to compete for a championship as if it were the national championship.”
Vanderbilt will definitely have to do his thing at the season opening Colonial Lanes Classic in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 22-24. The competition will be hosted by No. 16 Tulane and will feature Southland League foe No. 9 Louisiana Tech, which will no doubt be looking forward to a rematch of last year’s Southland Championship game.
This will be the second Tulane-hosted tournament for Gainor, who made the decision to join the team for another year while pursuing a graduate degree in marketing. While a place on this particular all-tournament team eluded her as a junior, Gainor’s impressive resume of two NTCA All-American teams, a first-team All-Southland and seven other all-tournament teams means the longest-serving player in Vanderbilt bowling history will be. have a solid shot at helping her team to victory in October.
The following weekend, the Commodores head to Farmingdale, New York, where they’ll have the chance to defeat the No. 7 Youngstown State. This tournament is of particular interest to one Vanderbilt bowler in particular – sophomore Amanda Naujokas, who grew up near Farmingdale on Long Island. She is also quite optimistic about the Commodores’ chances this year.
“I have a feeling this season is going to get a lot better because we didn’t really get along outside of training last season” [due to COVID-19 restrictions]’ said Naujokas. “I feel like we’re a lot closer this year.”
Those close ties are key to building a team’s chemistry, which is recognized as particularly important by the Vanderbilt engineering staff.
“The group’s chemistry is in some ways more important than the group’s talent,” Williamson said.
While the Commodores don’t lack talent, neither will their competition. Vanderbilt will have its first tournament alongside No. 3 Arkansas State – hands down the biggest obstacle for the Commodore to repeat as Southland League champions – November 12-14 in the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Classic. During the Kenosha, Wisconsin, tournament, the Commodores may also encounter an explosion from their own past – No. 1 Nebraska. In the event that this happens, Vanderbilt’s team has been instructed to just play their game.
“I hope to try and compete against ourselves,” Williamson said. “We have no control over what the other team does. There is no defense. If they make crazy scores and we don’t make crazy scores, we can’t do anything.”
From there, Vanderbilt will wrap up its fall schedule with a trip to Millsboro, Delaware, for the Eastern Shore Hawk Classic. The tournament is hosted by No. 20 University of Maryland Eastern Shore and will include the Commodores’ first round opponent in last year’s NCAA tournament – No. 13 Mount Saint Mary’s.
One thing that makes bowling different from other sports is the lack of set matchups.
“The unique thing about bowling is that if you watch football, for example, there’s a big preview of Tennessee playing,” Barnes said. “For bowling, you often play the right teams in matches. There is no one-off situation like with other sports.”
Vanderbilt kicks off 2022 with a plane ride to Las Vegas, Nevada, for the Stormin’ Blue and White Classic January 8-10
“I think it’s going to be cool to travel a lot,” said freshman Kaylee Hitt. “I bowled in high school for six years and we competed in tournaments every weekend, but this is a whole other level.”
This lonely trip west will also serve as déjà vu for sophomore Jennifer Loredo, who won the Las Vegas Under-20 competition as a senior in high school hosted by the same organization.
The Commodores will then face back-to-back competition weekends with the Northeast Classic January 21-23 and the Prairie View A&M Invitational January 28-30. Due to their attendance at all three of Vanderbilt’s tournaments to kick off the spring, it’s likely that the Commodores will at some point face No. 2 McKendree of Lebanon, Illinois. In fact, it was the McKendree Bearcats that narrowly took the win last season in last season’s Prairie View A&M Invitational against both Nebraska and Arkansas State — the teams ranked #1 and #3 in this year’s rankings.
These two tournaments will be nothing new to Vanderblilt bowling veterans, such as senior Angelique Dalesandro, who finished in the top 30 at the Prairie View A&M Invitational as a sophomore sophomore. The Illinois native will certainly try to replicate, or improve upon, that feat when the Commodores take on her home state university.
Two weeks later, the Commodores head back to Texas for a tournament sponsored by conference rival No. 9 Louisiana Tech. Vanderbilt hopes to finish third in last year’s LTU tournament — a competition in which they won six out of nine games but finished behind the host team and preseason No. 6 Sam Houston State.
Rather than focusing on the past, Vanderbilt’s coaching staff has a different plan for dealing with setbacks during the season: play every game as if it were their last.
“It’s more about coming back to that space no matter who we play against to try and show that we’ve grown,” Williamson said in response to his team’s struggles last season.
From February 25 to 27, the Commodores will compete in the Stallings Invitational in Greensboro, North Carolina. Returning from an absence caused by COVID-19 last season, the tournament will be hosted by No. 5 North Carolina A&T.
This trip east will serve as a homecoming tour for sophomore Caroline Thesier of Mooresville, North Carolina — just an hour away from the tournament venue. The Stallings Invitational will be the former Junior Team USA member’s first time playing in front of a home state audience.
With two weeks off before the next game, the Commodores can breathe a sigh of relief before hosting the Music City Classic from March 18-20. This will serve as the final regular season tournament for Vanderbilt and many of the biggest bowling programs. After that, it’s back to the grit and grind of the post-season game.
It was after the 2020 Music City Classic that the world, and college bowling, came to a halt because of COVID-19. That’s why Williamson wants to make sure his team doesn’t just compete for a championship, but appreciate the time it spends perfecting its craft day in, day out.
“COVID has shown that things can be taken away very quickly,” Williamson said. “So hopefully we can enjoy what we do.”
When the Southland Bowling League Championship kicks off on March 25, Vanderbilt will aim to do what no team in conference history has done before: win consecutive league titles. There’s a reason this has proved so difficult for any program: four of the last seven national title winners come from the South Country.
Whatever happens during the regular season and the conference tournament, the Commodores will have their eyes on the big prize in April: the NCAA Championship. Vanderbilt is one of only five programs to have multiple national bowling titles since the tournament’s inception in 2004. This year’s team will aim to bring the university a third championship trophy — a feat only achieved by two other schools.
To achieve that goal, the Commodores will have to face a series of killers of talented programs with equally high expectations. It’s a good thing the bowling practice facility has the key to success painted in big letters on the left wall.
“They are not big victories; they are not trophies; it’s not all tournament teams; they are not perfect games; it’s not a high average; it’s not quite American; it is not a TV broadcast; it’s not good press; it’s not fame. It’s the two in the 10th who win the championship.”
You can watch every match of Vanderbilt bowling livestream on their YouTube channel. Check out their schedule here.