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Gerard Gilberto | | April 15, 2016

NCAA Bowling: Who and what to watch after qualifiers

The NCAA bowling national title will be decided this weekend in New Jersey.

NORTH BRUNSWICK, N.J. – As the bracket for the 2016 NC Bowling Championships revealed that some teams just have a habit of making it to the final eight, two teams have emerged as first-time contenders.

Friday’s morning event concluded the final two matches of the qualifying round, setting up the seeds for the championship field before double-elimination bracket play begins in the afternoon session. The teams will be playing in a Baker format in the elimination rounds.

No. 8 McKendree and No. 7 North Carolina A&T will challenge a field that has over 100 championship appearances combined in their first trip to the NCAA tournament.

The Aggies appearance in the tournament represents a major shift in a program that nearly folded a few years ago, though the near-complete turnaround did not come as a surprise to coach Linda Grace.

“We set a goal at the beginning of the season, every season, and our goal is always to make the NCAAs,” Grace said. “The girls have worked hard this year. We fell into a little lull there before the break, they came back strong.”

The other first-timers at the event have experienced their fair share of adversity on their path to the national championship. Senior captain Samantha Hagerman was unable to compete in the Bearcats past two matches after accidentally dropping a ball on her foot.

McKendree coach Shannon O’Keefe was in awe of how well her team stepped up -- particularly some underclassmen -- in their captain’s absence.

“We had to call on one of our freshman [Ashley Hathaway] to step in and really take the reins,” O’Keefe said with a shrug. “To see her have that belief in herself that she could do it and she wasn’t scared.”

Hagerman will be available for the championship.

RELATED: NCAA Bowling bracket

While North Carolina A&T and McKendree may not know what lurks over the championship horizon, two teams in this year’s field are all too familiar with the landscape of this tournament. No. 6 Central Missouri and defending champion No. 3 Nebraska have been a part of the championship field every year since the bowling was recognized as an NCAA sport in 2004.

Nebraska coach Bill Straub mentioned that the Huskers have been the beneficiaries of a steady flow of highly-touted recruits joining the program throughout the years, but refused to take lone credit for building the program.

“Were awfully lucky in that people like Julia decide they want to be a Cornhusker, which makes my job a whole lot easier,” Straub said. “It’s not my recruiting -- I can’t sell space heaters to eskimos -- but if they in come our direction, we’ll have open arms.”

Julia Bond, the Most Outstanding Player in last year’s championship, makes her return to the event this weekend, potentially setting up the second installment of what could become one of the best rivalries in the sport with fellow sophomore and No. 5 Stephen F. Austin anchor Stephanie Schwartz.

Schwartz, the 2015 Freshman of the Year, is the only bowler throughout the NCAA that is a current member of Team USA and the top amateur in the country.

Also returning to the championship are top-seeded Sam Houston State, No. 2 Arkansas State (on their ninth consecutive trip to the championship) and 11-time title contenders, No. 4 Vanderbilt.

Anchored by senior Robyn Renslow, the Commodores came out firing in the opening match of Thursday’s qualifying round against McKendree, leading the field in total pinfall after one match with 1129. Reslow rolled a team-high 257 and set the highest Commodore mark for the day in the next match against Arkansas State with a 258.

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