WICKLIFFE, Ohio -- When Neishka Cardona and Kimi Davidson began their college careers at Sam Houston State, their school was beginning its women's bowling program. Now, four years later, these last members of that inaugural team are hoping to lead their team to a national championship.
During their four years, the Bearkats have reached the eight-team national championship three times, missing only in their sophomore seasons. Despite reaching nationals in her team's first try, Cardona said the first campaign was anything but easy.
"We were defintely the unknowns," Cardona, a political science major from Carolina, Puerto Rico, said. "It was weird because for all of us, it was our first college tournament. We've all bowled a lot of tournaments in our lives, but bowling with a colege team is so much different."I was extremely nervous," Cardona said. "I didn't know what to expect from this. I was still trying to learn the formats and all of that, but at the end, I really enjoyed it and knew that I wanted to keep doing it."
Davidson said getting through that inaugural season took confidence on their part.
“There were a lot of unknowns our first year,” Davidson said. “It was all based on trust and believing that coach [Brad Hagen] recruited us all for a reason.
"As we all got to know each other, we began to believe something special could happen."
And something did. That inaugural group of seven compiled 71 victories and reached as high as fifth in the NTCA coaches' poll. That season's Bearkats finished seventh in the national tournament.
A year later, despite an even better regular-season record (79-35), the team was left on the outside looking in after the selection show.
“Not getting to go our sophomore year was depressing,” Cardona said. “We were so disappointed that none of us really wanted to talk to each other for a couple of days after the announcement. But, looking back, that experience made us even more determined the next year.
"It really gave us the momentum to keep working to get better every day and push each other to improve.”
The team returned to the title tournament again last season in Detroit after a 102-win season. Again, the Bearkats finished seventh.
This year, making the final field of eight has been anything but a shoe-in. The team did have 90 wins, second in the country only to top-seed Arkansas State, but their record against top-20 teams was a little more suspect, at 47-38.
“After the first half of the season, we had to reevaluate what we were doing,” Davidson said. “We knew we had to go full steam ahead in the second half. It’s nice to know we accomplished everything we had set our minds to. Now we have to do the same in Cleveland.”
Hagan said his two seniors have done everything asked of them during their four years.
"They were both brought in as key role players to grow into the leaders they are today," Hagan said. "They both had siginficant tournament experience before they got here. From there it was molding that experience and getting them to trust that they could do it. They've done a great job."
The Bearkats finished Thursday's qualifying round with a 2-5 record. They'll be the seventh seed behind top-seeded Maryland Eastern Shore for the double-elimination match play round that begins Friday morning. Cardona bowled her team's highest game of the day -- a 238 -- in SHSU's final match of the day, a victory against Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Regardless of what may happen Friday and Saturday, both Cardona and Davidson said they'll take plenty of memories with them into the next phase of their lives.
"Winning tournaments and things is great," said Cardona, who'll compete for Team Puerto Rico after her collegiate career is over. "But to have such a close group of teammates and coaches. It's like another family. That's something I'll never forget."
For Davidson, a history major from Azle, Texas, her big moment came during that inaugural campaign.
"My big memory is when our names were called [on the selection show] that first season," she said. "It just really hit me that we beat all odds. Why not?"