WICKLIFFE, Ohio – When you bowl Baker style matches in the NCAA tournament, the two most crucial positions are the first and fifth bowlers on the team. The first sets the tone and the fifth bowls both the fifth frame and the crucial 10th frame.
For most, that kind of pressure can be intimidating, but for Maryland-Eastern Shores’ T’nia Falbo and Paula Vilas, not only do they thrive in these positions, but they have fun with them.
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“You have to have fun,” said Falbo, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “That’s the most important thing I think we learned this week. Between [Friday] and [Saturday], all we need to do is stay loose and have fun and we will win.”
And they did. Maryland-Eastern Shore won its second consecutive national championship on Saturday night at Freeway Lanes, defeating Fairleigh-Dickinson in six games, winning the final game 203-176. With the victory, UMES became the first team since Nebraska in 2004-05 to win back-to-back national titles.
The looseness of the Fighting Hawks presented itself even before the teams were allowed on the pair of lanes that were used for the final. During open practice on the auxiliary lanes to the right of the championship lanes, Falbo, a junior and Vilas, the lone senior on the UMES squad, were leading their team in musicless dance. During the commercial breaks on the ESPNU telecast, the team was singing and dancing to the music played for the live audience, led by Vilas and Falbo.
“It just happens,” said Vilas, who was sporting a partially maroon-dyed ponytail. “You put a good song on that we all know and we just start singing and we start dancing. It just happens.”
In each of the six games bowled Saturday night, Vilas led off her team with a strike. She said her loose, seemingly carefree attitude helped get the job done in those situations.
“If you’re tense,” she said, playfully wagging her index finger, “that 10 pin will stay up. It just knows.
“Bowling is just a game,” she said. “Even though [this is a big part of our life], it is a game and you have to have fun to win.”
Of course, throwing strikes and winning matches adds to the fun, but Falbo, who threw the clinching strike for her team in the 10th frame of game six, said fun breeds fun on the lanes.
“We said all day long that we had one job — to get up, stay excited and have fun,” Falbo said. “The more relaxed you are, the better you will carry and the more fun you’ll have.”
There was one game during the match that wasn’t so much fun for the Hawks. They shot 168 in Game 5, losing by 40 pins. Still, Falbo said the message to her team was exactly the same.
“Even when someone missed, or had a bad shot, we were all there to pick each other up,” Falbo said. “And it was great to know that whatever happened, your team was behind you and had your back and that everyone was still smiling.”
Smiling just as brightly as her two stars was head coach Kristina Frahm, who became the first person to win national championships as both a head coach and a player. Frahm, a four-time All-American and now three-time national champion, had a hard time deciding where this honor fit in her career.
“I don’t know,” Frahm said. “It was great as a player because you put all the time in, but it’s amazing as a coach for these young ladies. You can’t describe this feeling to somebody. You have to earn it and these girls earned it.”