(Editor's Note: Vanderbilt is hosting the ninth annual Columbia 300 Music City Classic Friday through Sunday at the Smyrna Bowling Center.)
Much to her astonishment, Jessica Earnest's days as a Vanderbilt undergraduate are numbered, as are her chances to wear the school's black and gold uniform and compete for her beloved Commodores.
In less than two months, the Vandalia, Ill., All-American will cross the big stage on Graduation Day and receive her coveted diploma. As significant as that is to her future, that is not her focus at the moment. Jessica and her teammates will host the annual Columbia 300 Music City Classic Friday through Sunday at the Smyrna Bowling Center, the last regular season competition that will attract 27 other teams, including 18 of the NCAA's Top 20 rated squads. That's got her attention.
"Individual awards seem minimal right now," Earnest says as she reflects on her Commodore career, which included winning a Gold Medal for Junior Team USA. "As a senior, I hope I can help someone younger than me grow. I want to be able to look back at the end of the day and know we put everything on the line to get where we needed to go."
It's been a bit of a roller coaster ride for Jessica, who vividly recalls the sting of falling out of the NCAA Tournament too early her freshman year, a season in which she and her older sister Josie helped the team win six tourney titles.
She remembers the excitement of how her sophomore year ended, getting into the NCAA Tournament in what was deemed a rebuilding year and going all the way to the championship game before falling short to Maryland-Eastern Shore. That tournament included a memorable comeback win over Nebraska in the semifinals.
And then a year ago, she recalls when a very good Vanderbilt team was edged in the semifinals and finished third. She has learned her lessons on the lanes but, more importantly, she's learned more away from her special sport.
"The biggest thing Vanderbilt has taught me is to face things head-on," Earnest states, "and that hasn't always been easy. Adversity has taught me about myself and I believe I am leaving Vanderbilt as a winner academically and athletically."
Earnest admits the books were not always easy but to illustrate how far she progressed in Vanderbilt's Top 20 classrooms, she came within a whisker of making the coveted Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll last semester. In the process, Jessica says she not only learned good time management skills, she discovered a passion for writing that could lead to a bright future.
"There is a discovery process here and it showed me that I was a lot more than just a bowler," she says. "I discovered something other than bowling that I love doing and I look forward to exploring that more once my college bowling days are over."
The three-time All-American and former national Rookie of the Year believes she created an opportunity for her future while at Vanderbilt but is grateful to the university for giving her so much support and encouragement over the years.
"I didn't realize how much support I actually had here until a meeting I had last year with Neal Clark (academic counselor). I don't think I will ever be able to thank Vanderbilt enough for what it's done for me and what it's meant to me."
Vanderbilt Head Coach John Williamson has certainly appreciated Jessica's huge contribution over the years.
"It has been rewarding to see Jess learn and progress during her four years," he says, "and I believe her growth outside of bowling has enhanced her bowling. She has been a good teammate and has been steady and reliable throughout her career. She has made clutch shots with the best of them so as a result she has been someone that we have been able to count upon."