It’s a quarter past twelve on the first day of the fall vacation, and the Vanderbilt bowling team are entering their third hour of practice.
Rookie Paige Peters nails the last pin of a spare down the middle. Coming back to the group, she gets a high-five from Amelia Kiefer, who walks calmly towards the lane and hits her second straight strike. The whole team applaud as Kiefer turns to the monitors on the back wall to check his stats. It’s enough tyPical of a training game: almost every frame is a strike or a spare. The team is just that good.
In fact, Vanderbilt is so good that he is ranked No. 4 in the country in the first National Association of Tenpin Trainers survey of the year. However, if you were talking to the players or the coaches you would think this team has a long way to go.
“I always think something can be done better, something can be better,” head coach John Williamson said of his mindset. “If we think we’re pretty good in October, we won’t be very good in April. “
Last April, the Commodores’ season ended in a disappointing fashion. 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 fact, over the past four seasons, Vanderbilt has either won the National Championship or been knocked out by the team that did.
It is also the expectation for this year.
“Win a national championship. That’s our goal every year, ”said junior Mabel Cummins. “I haven’t won a national championship and that’s something I want to do at Vanderbilt before my time as a student athlete is over.”
Cummins, who Last year was the tournament MVP of the Southland Bowling League and a second All-American team, is the most decorated player on a roster brimming with talent. Thanks to the return of graduate student Samantha Gainor, Vanderbilt’s roster boasts 11 players who fall almost perfectly between each grade level. And, thanks to the talents from top to bottom of the group, everyone has the potential to play a role this season.
“It sounds like the most talented one-to-eleven roster we’ve had in the sense that next week we really have no idea what our roster will be,” said associate head coach Josie. Barnes during training.
This depth of roster is reflected in the fact that the Commodores have not one, but two returning All-Southland first-team players from last year, with the aforementioned tournament MVP Cummins and senior Angelica Anthony. Even freshmen Paige Peters, Kaylee Hitt and Kailee Channel, who are already familiar with the bright lights of national competition, will be competing for game time on October 22.
No matter who the Commodores play in their first tournament, the expectations will be the same.
“We go to every tournament with the hope that we will compete for a championship,” said Williamson. “The Tulane tournament next weekend is not the national championship, but we are going to be in it to compete for a championship like it is the national championship.”
Vanderbilt will certainly have its work cut out for it at the season opener Colonial Lanes Classic in New Orleans, Louisiana, October 22-24. The competition will be hosted by No.16 Tulane and feature No.9 Southland League foe Louisiana Tech, who will no doubt be looking forward to a rematch of last year’s Southland Championship game.
This will be the second tournament hosted by Tulane for Gainor, who has made the decision to join the team for one more year as she pursues graduate studies in marketing. While a spot on this specific team of all tournaments has eluded him as a junior, Gainor’s impressive resume of two NTCA All-American teams, an All-Southland first team and seven other teams from all tournaments, means Vanderbilt’s longest-serving bowling player in history will have a solid chance to help his team to victory in October.
The following weekend, the Commodores travel to Farmingdale, New York, where they will have the chance to face No.7 Youngstown State. This tournament holds special significance for one Vanderbilt player in particular, sophomore Amanda Naujokas, who grew up near Farmingdale on Long Island. She is also quite optimistic about the chances of the Commodores this year.
“I feel like this season is going to be a lot better because last season we didn’t really interact outside of practice. [due to COVID-19 restrictions]”Naujokas said.” I feel like this year we are much closer.
These close bonds are essential to building a team’s chemistry, which is recognized as particularly important by the coaching staff at Vanderbilt.
“The chemistry of the group is in some ways more important than the talent of the group,” said Williamson.
While the Commodores are not lacking in talent, neither are their competitors. Vanderbilt will host his first tournament alongside Arkansas State No.3 – arguably Commodore’s biggest hurdle to repeat himself as a Southland League champion – November 12-14 at the Stephen F. Austin Ladyjack Classic. At the tournament in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Commodores may also face an explosion from their own past – No. 1 Nebraska. In case that did happen, the Vanderbilt team were tasked with just playing their game.
“I hope to try and compete with ourselves,” said Williamson. “We can’t control what the other team is doing. There is no defense. If they shoot crazy scores and we don’t shoot crazy scores, there is nothing we can do.
From there, Vanderbilt will round out their fall schedule with a trip to Millsboro, Delaware, for the Eastern Shore Hawk Classic. The tournament is hosted by the University of Maryland Eastern Shore No. 20 and will include the Commodores’ first-round opponent from last year’s NCAA tournament — No. 13 Mont Sainte-Marie.
One thing that makes bowling different from other sports is its lack of matches.
“The thing about bowling is that if you watch football, for example, there’s a big future ahead of Tennessee,” Barnes said. “For bowling, in competitions, you often play against the good teams. There is no one-size-fits-all situation like in other sports.
Vanderbilt to begin in 2022 with an airplane flight 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 rookie Kaylee Hitt. “I bowled in high school for six years and we competed in tournaments every weekend, but it’s a whole new level.”
This lonely trip to the west will also serve as deja vu for sophomore Jennifer Loredo, who as a high school student won the Las Vegas Under-20s competition hosted by the same organization.
The Commodores will then head to 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 participation in Vanderbilt’s three tournaments to start the spring, it’s likely that the Commodores will have to face No.2 McKendree of Lebanon, Illinois at some point. In fact, it was the McKendree Bearcats that narrowly won last season’s Prairie View A&M Invitational against Nebraska and Arkansas State, the teams ranked No.1 and No.3 in the preseason standings of This year.
These two tournaments won’t be new to Vanderblilt bowling veterans like Angelique Dalesandro, who in second year placed in the top 30 at the Prairie View A&M Invitational. The Illinois native will most certainly look to repeat that performance, or improve it, if the Commodores go up against her state university.
Two weeks later, the Commodores will return to Texas for a tournament sponsored by No.9 conference rival Louisiana Tech. Vanderbilt is hoping to finish higher than his third place finish at last year’s LTU tournament, a competition in which they won six 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 have a different plan for dealing with adversity during the season: to play every game like it’s the last.
“It’s more about coming back into that space, no matter who we play, to try and show that we’ve grown,” Williamson said in response to his team’s struggles in the last playoffs.
From February 25-27, the Commodores will participate in the Stallings Invitational in Greensboro, North Carolina. Returning from a COVID-19-induced absence last season, the tournament will be hosted by North Carolina No.5 A&T.
This eastward trip will serve as a homecoming tour for sophomore Caroline Thesier from Mooresville, NC, just an hour from the tournament site. The Stallings Invitational will be the first time the former US junior team member has played in front of a home state crowd.
With two weeks off before the next competition, the Commodores will be able to breathe a sigh of relief before hosting the Music City Classic from March 18-20. This will be the last tournament of the regular season for Vanderbilt and several of bowling’s biggest programs. After that, it’s the return to the grain and the grind of the playoff game.
It was after the Music City Classic of 2020 that the world and college bowling came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19. That’s why Williamson wants to make sure his team not only competes for a championship, but appreciates the time they spend perfecting their craft day in and day out.
“COVID has shown that things can be removed very quickly,” Williamson said. “So hopefully we can enjoy what we’re doing. “
When the Southland Bowling League Championship kicks off on March 25, Vanderbilt will be looking to do what no team in conference history has done before – win back-to-back league titles. There’s a reason this has proven so difficult to achieve for any program: Four of the last seven national title winners have come from Southland.
Regardless of what happens during the regular season and the conference tournament, the Commodores will have their eyes on the grand prize in April: the NCAA Championship. Vanderbilt is one of five programs to own multiple national bowling titles since the tournament was established in 2004. This year’s team will look to bring the university a third championship trophy, a feat that has not been accomplished. than by two other schools.
To achieve that goal, the Commodores will face a row of talented program murderers with equally high expectations. It is a good thing that the Bowling Practice Center has the key to success painted in large print on its left wall.
“These are not big wins; they are not trophies; these are not all tournament teams; these are not perfect games; it is not a high average; it’s not all American; it is not television coverage; it is not good press; it is not fame. They are the two in 10th to win the national championship.
You can watch every Vanderbilt bowling game via livestream on their Youtube channel. Check their schedule here.