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Joe Holleman | St. Louis Post-Dispatch | April 11, 2018

Women's college bowling champs roll into historic St. Louis

When the nation's best young women bowlers roll into town Wednesday, they may not know that they're really just bringing it all back home.

The 2018 NCAA Women's Bowling Championship will be held Thursday through Saturday at the legendary Tropicana Lanes in Clayton — more than 100 years after women's bowling was officially organized in St. Louis in 1916.

"Bowling became quite popular in the 1890s, but women were dissuaded from participating," said Jessica Bell, curator of the International Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum in Arlington, Texas.

"Like other sports, it was associated with gambling and often took place either in drinking establishments or on outdoor lanes, so it was deemed to be too disreputable for women," Bell said.

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But because women were enjoying the sport on private home lanes as the century turned, Bell said it was only a matter of time before small leagues began to form and the number of women bowlers blossomed.

"Then in 1916 and 1917, the Women's International Bowling Congress was formed, right in St. Louis," she said.

Truth be told, it was a man, Dennis J. Sweeney, who got the ball rolling.

According to his Hall of Fame biography, Sweeney owned the Washington Bowling Alleys in the 700 block of Washington Avenue and had long wanted to open his lanes, and the sport, to women.

Not that local women were not enthusiastic. According to the United States Bowling Congress, avid St. Louis bowler Ellen Kelly formed a local association in 1915.

"Buoyed by her success, she wrote to proprietors across the country asking for names of women who might be interested in a national organization of their own," the museum notes state.

One person who answered was Sweeney, who in late 1916 organized a meeting of women bowlers to discuss the possibility of forming a national organization.

Then in October 1917, the first official meeting of the WIBC was held and included 40 women from 11 cities. They set up an executive committee and drafted a constitution and bylaws.

The first official women's tournament, however, was held in Cincinnati in early 1918.

RELATED: 2018 women's bowling field announced

Like the first tournament in St. Louis, this weekend's college roll-off is composed of eight teams that will compete in a single-elimination bracket style playoff.

Even better, a hometown team will compete to retain its U.S. crown.

The McKendree Bearcats from Lebanon, Ill., are the defending champions and the No. 2 seed in this year's tournament. The top seed is Nebraska, who the Bearcats beat in the finals last year in Baton Rouge, La.

The other teams are Arkansas State; Vanderbilt; Sam Houston State; North Carolina A&T; Lincoln Memorial (Tenn.); Texas Southern; Bowie State (Md.); and St. Francis (Pa.).

But if there is an advantage to being the home team, Bearcat Coach Shannon O'Keefe is playing it way down.

"We're not real sure if it's a good thing or not," she said. "For most of the year, we travel to play and we don't have a lot of followers, except for parents."

RELATED: Bowling championship history

To handle the increased potential for distraction, O'Keefe said she had a sports psychologist meet with the team to discuss how to handle the hubbub.

Although there are several area bowlers on the team, the 10 starters who will compete in the tourney for McKendree are imports. One of them, Sarah Wille, recently was named the bowler of the year in the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association.

Eric Breece, assistant director of NCAA championships, said a women's tournament has been held since 2004 and takes in all three NCAA divisions.

"We now have 80 teams competing in bowling, which is about double the number from 15 years ago. And we've seen the number of followers grow as well," Breece said.

"Hey, it's exciting to watch good bowlers. And the players, coaches, fans are just as passionate about their sport" as other competitors are with the major competitions.

The event is in town for a second time (also 2015), with help from the St. Louis Sports Commission.

And while it may not come close to drawing the crowds that come with larger college sporting events, like the recent Southeastern Conference basketball tourney, the commission's Brent Shulman said he agrees with Breece's approach.

"We don't treat any of them as being 'minor.' There will be a thousand or so avid fans enjoying the experience," Shulman said.

Same goes for Tropicana owner Tino DeFranco, who has been spitting and polishing his showplace for weeks.

"We've been cleaning everything and checking everything twice. We've put up some bleachers to accommodate the crowd," DeFranco said. "The NCAA runs a tight ship so we want to look our best."

DeFranco said the lanes are actually the one thing he doesn't need to worry about.

"The NCAA brings in its own people and they're in charge of inspecting the lanes and applying the oil," he said.

DeFranco readily conceded that he also wants his place to look good on television, since the finals will be carried at 5:30 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU.

The Tropicana was a regular supporting character when it hosted Professional Bowling Association matches during the heyday of televised bowling in the 1960s and 1970s.

"They run national ads about the event, that brings people to town, so you want to look your best," he said. "It's a matter of civic pride."

This article is written by Joe Holleman from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.