When seniors Ashley Belden and Josie Earnest talk about winning the national championship – and they do – to their teammates on Vanderbilt’s bowling team, they speak from experience.
“We constantly talk about winning the national championship,” Belden said. “Not just going – but we talk about winning. Our freshmen and new players have really bought into that idea.”
Belden and Earnest are the only remaining players from the 2007 team that won the NCAA title (Vanderbilt’s first in any sport). Their last chance to do it again, and not just to talk about it, begins Thursday when the Commodores make their fifth straight appearance at the NCAA championship event.
The tournament will take place over three days in North Brunswick, New Jersey. After a qualifying round to determine seeding, a double-elimination tournament will be held to crown the winner.
“It’s our [seniors’] last tournament, so we feel we have a lot riding on this one” Belden said.
Earnest is a two-time NCAA Player of the Year. She’s had 10 games over 215 this season and recently picked up an unlikely 6-7 split to spark the Commodores’ come-from-behind win at their last tournament, the Music City Classic. In that one, they defeated Nebraska, one of the seven other teams they will face this week.
“We’ve bowled every team in the tournament several times,” she said. “We know it’s a deep field and we can’t take any team for granted, but it’s an advantage to have seen them before. There won’t be any surprises.”
The seniors are conscious that this is their last collegiate bowling tournament, and last chance to reclaim the national title. But Earnest is committed to eschewing any extra pressure.
“One of the things I’ve really focused on is recognizing that it’s the national championship, but it’s still just a tournament,” she said. “The pressure is perceived; we want to be in the moment and take it one shot at a time.”
VU coach John Williamson said all eight teams have had similar experiences throughout the season.
“Each team has had at least one lights-out weekend this year and one that they wish they could forget,” he said. “It really is a crap shoot.”
When it comes to his team, though, he believes it is different from any of his previous ones, including the one that claimed the national title.
“A lot of success is based off of the group’s chemistry,” he said. “This is the best team chemistry we’ve had since I’ve been here.”