WICKLIFFE, Ohio -- For a program that’s won three NCAA championships the seeding usually isn’t too much of a worry. But for Maryland-Eastern Shore, earning the top-seed in bracket play was more about how they bowled and how much they enjoyed themselves on the lanes.
“I haven’t had this much fun with these girls all season,” head coach Kayla Bandy said. “We haven’t been this relaxed and this spirited since maybe January at Kutztown.”
UMES won that tournament for the third year in a row.
Relaxed and fun aren’t always two words that go hand in hand with NCAA championships. There are a lot of nerves, a lot of pressure, whether it is self-inflicted or from the fans and media. But for the Lady Hawks, there was no pressure and there were no nerves.
“I felt the best I have at any time over the last four years,” lone senior Megan Buja said. “I felt like we knew we could bowl well on this [oil] pattern and like we had nothing to lose. Our school has won an NCAA title as the 7th seed, so today it was more about enjoying us, finding our line, and feeling confident. I think we accomplished that.”
UMES went 4-1 in the opening block of matches to start the day at Game of Wickliffe. That lone loss to Central Missouri was the only blemish on its record, which included a defeat of the nation’s No. 1 team Arkansas State. It proved to not only be critical for confidence, it was the only time UMES beat them all season, but for the seeding as well. ASU finished with an identical 6-1 mark and with a defeat at the talons of the Hawks the tiebreaker of head-to-head gave the nod to UMES.
Coach Bandy had confidence in her players. She started all her upperclassmen, Buja and four juniors, and it paid off. In fact the three freshman on the team, which includes the conference rookie of the year, never even warmed up. The lineup of Buja, Victoria Jones, Valerie Riggin, Tatiana Munoz and All-America anchor Mariana Alvarado were dominant. No one changed positions, no one got subbed, and no one gave in.
In the end, it was the senior, Buja who stepped up to lead her team. Bowling lead-off, Buja, an All-American, averaged a 232.6 in seven games, including a 747 series in the last three games. She rounded out her day with a 279 in the Sam Houston State win and a 267 in a win against Nebraska.
The 279 tied for highest game of the day and is one shy of her career high.
“It was just so fun today,” she said. “We all had fun, we cheered, we laughed, and we all bowled well. It was a great day.”
Bowled well is an understatement, as Riggin would finish fourth overall with a 222.6 average, Alvarado was ninth with a 215.6 average, Munoz was 12th with a 203.3 average and Jones was 22nd with a 192.3 average. All five players were in the top 22 of the 54 who bowled.
Riggin shot a 266 in the win against Nebraska, a career high.
Officially UMES collected wins against Wisconsin-Whitewater 1009-980, Sam Houston State, 1116-942 and Nebraska 1117-852 in the evening session.
They averaged a 1,066.3 per match and were second in total pinfall with 7464 to ASU who had just 37 more pins.
All in all, a pretty good day at the lanes.
UMES has never earned the top-seed at the NCAA championships. It won in 2008 as the seventh-seed, in 2011 as the third-seed and 2012 as the fifth-seed.
In other action, Sam Houston State at 2-5 claimed the eighth seed and will face UMES in the morning. Central Missouri 2-5 the only team to beat UMES, is the seventh seed and draws Arkansas State. Nebraska 2-5 took the sixth seed and will bowl Vanderbilt 4-3 the third seed, while Wisconsin-Whitewater 3-4 and Fairleigh Dickinson 3-4 will match-up as the fourth and fifth seeds, respectively.