You wouldn't think that both teams that bowled in the national championship match last season would feel much stress about making the eight-team field for this year's national championship tournament. Still, for defending national champion Nebraska and 2013 runner-up Vanderbilt, the paths that lead them to Wickliffe, Ohio, this weekend were far from easy -- or traditional.
The Commodores spent most of the season hanging around the low end of the top 10 of the coaches' poll, hardly a secure spot when the goal is to compete for a national title.
"We've had issues this whole year -- more with chemistry than anything else," Vanderbilt head coach John Williamson said. "We had a couple of seniors last year that were really big for us both on and off the lanes. So we spent most of this year trying to figure out who's going to be the leader -- who's going to be in charge."
"We've never really had captains," Williamson said. "I don't really believe in it, but we named a captain in Nicole Chanin about four weeks ago, before our last two tournaments."
Chanin, a junior from Sparta, N.J., and a former New Jersey state champion, led her team to a second-place finish at the Ozark Invitational and a win at the season-ending Music City Classic. The Commodores shot a baker-style 300 in the final game to win the tournament and earn a spot in the field that goes to the starting gate Thursday morning.
"Those season-ending tournaments were a huge boost," Chanin said. "We were able to string good shots together and work for a common cause. That's the great thing about college athletics, nothing beats it. You work so hard all year for one moment, never actually knowing when it will come. That's the mentality I want to see with our team go with."
Williamson believes his team is already there.
"We don't want to change the process or change anything that we're doing," Williamson said. "I think we're on to something with our team and hopefully they don't put the cart before the horse and try to make this tournament bigger than it is. You get into trouble when you try to make things bigger than they are."
Defending champion Nebraska has also had to deal with changing leadership, but in a much more dire circumstance.
In early January, long-time head coach Bill Straub was hospitalized with an aortic dissection (a tear of the aorta). With Straub unable to coach, assistant coach Paul Klempa was named interim head coach.
"We knew he was going to be out for a while, and it happened right as we were starting our second semester, which is when the bulk of our tournaments are," Klempa said.
While that is daunting enough, Klempa was left with another empty spot in the team's support system.
"Bill's wife is our secretary," he said. "And obviously she was out to be by his side, so I was kind of left alone with all this kind of dumped in my lap. Just circumstances. It was really stressful at first, but the [athletic] department really helped me. They helped me get some secretarial help. The girls really rallied around me and they rallied around our goal, which was to keep things on track and make Cleveland."
Since Straub's hospitalization, the Huskers have won two of five tournaments and finished no lower than fifth in any of those five events.
"They did an excellent job," Klempa said. "The leaders led. The seniors stood up and took charge and we took care of business."
Straub is planning to be back this weekend in Cleveland, and Klempa couldn't be happier.
"He's back kind of on a part-time basis," Klempa said. "He's not here all day. He's here for our practices mostly or part of our practices and he is planning to go to Cleveland. He's not 100 percent back, but he's back some."
Competition begins with qualifying rounds on Thursday. Each team will bowl one five-person regular team game against each of the other seven teams in the tournament.
Bracket play begins Friday morning. Teams will be seeded based on their Thursday’s record. They will then compete in best-of-seven-games Baker matches in a double-elimination format. In the Baker format, each of the five team members, in order, bowls a complete frame until a complete, 10-frame game is bowled.
If-necessary matches are scheduled for Saturday morning before the championship match, set for 8 p.m. ET Saturday.