Facing a tough draw and fielding a team that blended seasoned veterans with dynamic young talents, the women’s bowling team took the Vanderbilt community and student body on quite a ride over 48 hours last weekend in its run to the very brink of clinching the athletic department’s second national championship in any sport.
Despite being the No. 7 seed, Vanderbilt battled its way through the NCAA championship tournament to reach the final Saturday night against top-seeded Nebraska. The Commodores took an early lead over the Cornhuskers but succumbed to a furious comeback in the final games, falling 4.5-2.5 to the Cornhuskers in Canton, Mich., to finish as national runners-up for the second time in three years.
The loss marked the end of the careers of four senior bowlers — Jessica Earnest, Kim Carper, Courtney Morgan and Sarah O’Brien — who have finished third or better in three out of their four trips to the national tournament. While it didn’t end in a title, the group’s final run did include dramatic 4-3 wins on Friday over Maryland Eastern Shore — the two-time defending national champion — and Arkansas State to help propel the team into Saturday’s championship match.
“We wanted to win and believed we were going to win,” said senior Kim Carper. “The pins just didn’t fall our way. I am so proud of the team though, especially the sophomores and freshmen who stepped up. There were so many nerves involved, plus the fans in the crowd, the lights and the pressure.”
The bowling program was looking to claim its first tournament victory of the 2012-13 season and its first national title since 2007. The Commodores reached the semifinal last year and lost in the final to Maryland Eastern Shore in 2011.
Against Nebraska, Vanderbilt dropped the first game of the Baker-format match, a best-of-seven series where each game sees five bowlers per team bowl two frames each. The Commodores went on to win the next two games and claim a 2-1 lead. Game four saw a rare 190-190 tie after a strike by Nebraska’s Liz Khulkin in the tenth frame to bring the score to 2.5-1.5 in favor of Vanderbilt. The Cornhuskers would go on to win the final three games of the match.
Every game but the last was in doubt until the final frame. In that deciding game, Nebraska rode six straight strikes to clinch the championship. Before that, no game was settled by more than 13 pins.
“I think that there was a couple of good shots that we had that we didn’t carry, and if we would’ve gotten some bowling luck, we would’ve doubled or struck in some cases,” said head coach John Williamson. “Unfortunately for us, the lights, the TV, the completely different atmosphere, I don’t think we adjusted well to that.”
The Cornhuskers won their fourth title in the 10-year history of the sport as an NCAA championship event. Vanderbilt was making its eighth straight trip to the event out of its nine years of existence as a varsity sport.
The Commodores figure to remain a major player in the future, as just two bowlers who rolled in the championship game were seniors and the final match saw enormous contributions from two freshmen and two sophomores. One of the seniors, Earnest, was named to the All-Tournament team.
“For a group of kids that had some senior leadership and had some youth that was talented, we were able to mesh together,” Williamson said. “It wasn’t pretty at times in the beginning of the year, at the middle of the year, but we were able to mesh and stick together and put a run together that, looking back on it, made the year extremely special.”
Editor-in-Chief Eric Single and Assistant Sports Editor Anthony Tripodoro contributed to this report.