April 14, 2013
CANTON, MI---It is difficult to describe the emptiness that accompanies a defeat in a major championship competition. The rest of the universe assumes that flirting with a national championship is almost as good as marrying one and Vanderbilt's bowling team can certify that assumption is false.
The young Commodores made attempts at the stiff upper lip as they watched Nebraska celebrate its 4.5-2.5 victory in Saturday night's NCAA championship game but the tears and body language didn't lie. The initial reaction stung with disappointment, the grand prize was so close.
As some time allows for perspective, this team will be able to realize that it accomplished big things and in many ways exceeded the expectations of the outside experts, who saw a freshman-sophomore dominated roster and figured it was a rebuilding year. And in some ways it was, although the bridesmaid nearly became the bride in this damp and dreary city.
The title games were all close and sophomore Natalie Goodman correctly analyzed that in the big picture, they were decided by which team could make one more shot than the other. The Commodores certainly had their chances, especially in the early going when it wouldn't have been too much a stretch for them to have won the first four games.
"Credit Nebraska," said Vanderbilt Coach John Williamson. "They were better at spare shooting tonight than we were. And I thought that they handled the lights (television) and environment better than we did. We have a young group that learned a lot tonight and we have some seniors that provided a lot of leadership that we will need to replace next year. Someone had to lose and I'm sorry it was us this time but we will be back."
As Goodman noted, the differences were small but meaningful. In the opening game, Vandy dropped a 211-199 decision that got decided very late. The Commodores won the next two by equally narrow margins as the scores began to dip.
The fourth game ended in a 190-190 tie after Liz Kuhlkin of Nebraska was able to deliver a key strike in the tenth. A turning point in this game came in the fifth when Vanderbilt opened and the Huskers capitalized with some good fortune as a lone pin wobbled and wobbled for seconds before finally deciding to give in to gravity. The strike seemed to provide a momentum swing.
Nebraska would win Game 5 by seven pins (196-189) and Game 6 by 11 (193-182). The deciding game turned into the only rout as the explosive Huskers ended with six in a row to win, 246-200.
A fair summary might conclude that this team maximized its potential, given its reliance on youth. It is a program that has been knocking on the door the past several years - a second place in 2011 and a semi-final berth last year in Cleveland.
But for high achieving women who invested years getting to this level and countless hours this year at practices, strength and endurance training and sessions geared to think positively, that summary will be on the back burner for a few days. They had their eyes on the prize and fell tantalizingly short.