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Mark Spoor | | April 11, 2014

David vs. Goliath

WICKLIFFE, Ohio -- One team bowling for the national championship on Saturday night has four national championships. The other has been in existence for four years.

Nebraska, the defending national champion, faces Sam Houston State, a program reaching its first title match after ending Thursday's qualifying round as the eighth seed in the eight-team field with a 2-5 record.

On paper, these two teams couldn't be more different. However, the paths they took to Saturday's championship match were errily similar.

Nebraska also struggled in Thursday's qualfiying round, earning a six-seed after also going 2-5 (the Huskers beat Sam Houston State for their second win). Head coach Bill Straub said his team used a little bit of science to make the adjustments needed to reach the final.

"We try to do some manipulating of the lanes that may be conducive to us performing better and it worked out," Straub said. "This house, with the maintenance procedure that's in place, it hooks early and it hooks in the middle, so we took the one plastic ball that we each have and we played it right down the middle during the practice session.

"What that does is it moves the oil further down," Straub said. "So it gave the kids a chance to do a little bit of manipulation [with hand position] without getting in jail. We got lucky."

Sam Houston State started its experimenting late Thursday night during it's final qualifying match against Wisconsin-Whitewater, a match the Bearkats won.

"A lot of people thought I was crazy [Thursday]," SHSU head coach Brad Hagen said. "We wanted to get outside the box and get more into our wheelhouse and the information we were looking for [Thursday], we got.

"So [Friday] we just wanted to see if the information we got about where to play -- and more importantly not to play would pay off [Friday] -- and it did."

Both teams went 3-0 on Friday. The Bearkats fell behind 0-2 to top-seed Maryland Eastern Shore in their opening match and won 4-2. They then beat Wisconsin-Whitewater 4-2 to earn the right to face UMES again. This time, the eight seed beat the top seed 4-0.

Hagen said that even though nearly everyone in the bowling center doubted his team, he never did. In fact, he relished in their doubt.

"We've been the new guys on the block for four years and we've dealt with a little bit of animosity," Hagen said. "They didn't know who we were. They didn't know anybody on the team. They didn't know who I was.

"We took it very personally, but we're a firm believer in actions speak louder than words," he said. "We encourage people to talk about us because we use it for motivation so that we can prove people otherwise.

"This team is not an eight seed," he said.

Both teams also used strong player leadership. Nebraska junior Liz Kuhlkin said even though she's been through it all before, this time feels a little different.

"It was really exciting," Kuhlkin said."When we got down to Vanderbilt 2-3 (in their first match of the day) and came back and won, I thought there might not be any turning back from there -- and sure enough, here we are."

Sam Houston State seniors Neishka Cardona and Kimi Davidson are the last of the original members of Sam Houston State’s inaugural women’s bowling team in 2010-11. Now, at the end of their trailblazing run, they find themselves with a shot at a national championship.

"It hasn't settled in yet, to be honest," Cardona said. "We all did a great job as a team. We did our job. We stayed clean. We filled frames and we just stayed together. We were saying 'we just need two good frames from everyone.'"

Davidson said the day changed when her team came back to defeat UMES in the opening match of the day.

"There was a moment of realization when I thought anything is possible and that it's just about who makes the better shots in that match."

Hagen has what you might call respectful confidence heading into Saturday's championship match.

"Coach Straub is a good friend. He's a great mentor and what they do works," Hagen said. "At the end of the day, we're going to go in and play our game. It's always a good match between them and us.

"We have a couple tricks up our sleeve and we'll see what happens," he said. "When you get on TV, it's anybody's ballgame. Whoever shows up emotionally and stays in the moment is going to come out ahead."

Straub contends that despite all the experience his team has, he has more than a bit of worry about facing a team on the kind of roll that Sam Houston State is on.

"You can only be a first-time winner once," Straub said. "If they go into it where they've got nothing to lose, it's going to be harder for us to beat them. If they feel like it might be tougher, on their first occassion, it'll be easier.

"But if they go in with nothing to lose, they have a good chance of winning."