BATON ROUGE, LA---Vanderbilt won a pair of hard-fought matches and advanced in the winner's bracket of the NCAA Bowling Championship Friday.
The Commodores, who earned the tournament's No. 2 seed earlier in the day on the strength of a 5-2 round-robin record against the other teams in the field, defeated Maryland-Eastern Shore and Arkansas State by identical 4-2 scores in the best of seven Baker play. They will play the winner of tomorrow's early loser's bracket game between Nebraska and Maryland-Eastern Shore at approximately 10:20 p.m. CDT
For someone that didn't watch the matches, the scores would appear to indicate two comfortable victories. In reality, they were two back and forth tussles won by steady play and a bit of Lady Luck - not entirely different from the recent championship match in the Southland Bowling League which had a similar finish.
"They were very tough games," Vandy Coach John Williamson said afterward. "Arkansas State had two pivotal splits in that last game and we caught some breaks against Eastern Shore. It was terrific bowling in that last one -- two of the top four teams in the country playing for the right to advance. I thought Arkansas State bowled very well; someone had to lose but this is the national championship and wins don't come easily."
Everyone in Vandy's rotation contributed but some onlookers felt two key decisions made by the Commodore coaches were critical in the wins. One came when freshman Emily Rigney, who had been lights-out all day, seemingly ran off the tracks in the fourth game with Arkansas State. The Aussie southpaw had a missed makeable spare and then a split/open, which could have led to a substitution.
Williamson didn't waver in keeping her in the rotation.
"You can forget she's just 18 years old and a freshman," he said, "but it wasn't hard to stick with her because she's had such a good look the entire tournament.She showed for the whole year that she's very mature. Josie (Earnest) and I had a couple of conversations with her and after that she settled back down and made good shots."
Indeed, Rigney responded by finishing the last two games with four straight strikes that were significant in the win.
"My day was a little up and down," Rigney modestly understated, "but it helps that our team has jelled together and we feed off each other. Coach and Josie both called me out for over-thinking after those two opens and they brought me back down to earth and reminded me to be simple with it."
A second decision resulted in taking out Kristin Quah, who was eighth in individual standings, after the star sophomore got hit with a case of the splits and inserting classmate Jordan Newham, who started slowly and turned out to be a solid source of energy in the Arkansas State win.
"Jordan has been pretty steady all year," Williamson said. "She had the short end of the lineup here so far but we told everyone to be ready. When she came in we actually didn't miss much, if anything, in production."
Yet another freshman played a major role -- the anchor Maria Bulanova, who handled her share of pressure as one would expect from a first-team All-American. She finished off Vandy's tournament-high 290 Baker game with three strikes in a row and put other games on ice with key strikes and doubles. She was third individually averaging over 212.
"We had a lot of adrenaline running in that game and I wanted that 290 game, in part to go one-up against a quality opponent but also that a big game might send a message to help us win the match."
It speaks to the quality of play that Katie Stark's name is just now being mentioned. The junior, who was the MVP in the recent Southland Bowling League tournament, was simply tremendous once again - today in the Baker rotation's four-hole. She brings a veteran's strength and perspective to the youth-dominated lineup.
"We were probably a little more nervous in the first game and there were some times where we struggled but there was never a doubt in my mind what this team can accomplish. Our chemistry and our skill level is at its peak right now. We feed off that when there is some adversity."
Stark, who was in second place individually just 14 pins behind the leader when the team games in the qualifying rounds concluded, continued with what appears to be a theme of the week.
"I think we do a good job of separating games and even shots. We do a really good job of staying in the present. I just want to do my part to help us win and whatever is required of me, I'll do it. I don't care, I want to win. Several of our international students are used to the intensity of big tournaments and can thrive in tough competition. We do a good job of helping each other."
Vanderbilt had split its last two qualifying games to begin the day, losing to No. 1 seed McKendree after a late game swoon, and a rousing win over Fairleigh Dickinson.
Saturday's early games are live-streamed on NCAA.com and the championship game will be televised live by ESPNU at 5:30 p.m. The tournament's official web page is found on bowl.com.
The Commodores will need to win one more game to make the title match.