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By Randy York
Buried in a festival-like avalanche of Nebraska’s upcoming sports weekend – a Spring Game in football, plus home games/matches in volleyball, women’s soccer and women’s tennis – is the NCAA Women’s Bowling Tournament in Wickliffe, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. That’s important because this Nebraska team is a legitimate national championship contender, and Cleveland seems like a perfect venue for Bill Straub, now in Year 16 as Nebraska’s head women’s bowling coach.
It’s perfect because Cleveland’s a blue-collar city, Straub’s a blue-collar coach and his team would be just as well served wearing blue collars on their red-or-black team shirts. The Huskers are, after all, student-athletes who have become national championship contenders through hard work more than innate talent. “Our primary skills are not really recruiting. They’re development in the broadest sense of the work, both individually and team-wise,” Straub told me one day at lunch. “It’s not necessarily that we peak at springtime. It’s more a case of other schools recruiting better bowlers than I’m able to recruit.”
I’ve known Bill Straub since he was a pro bowler decades ago, so allow me to explain his self-deprecating humor. Bill’s a grinder, a perfectionist and someone with little need for fanfare. He wins the old-fashioned way and runs a national caliber bowling team like a certain Hall-of-Fame football coach executed his walk-on program. Straub says his salesmanship is so lacking, he couldn’t get an Eskimo to buy a space heater. “I’m like the vacuum cleaner salesman who goes door-to-door and when a lady opens the door, he says: ‘You don’t want to buy a vacuum cleaner, do you?’ Well, that’s how I recruit at Nebraska. I say: ‘You don’t want to be a Husker, do you?’ And when they say yes, we’re onto something. That’s really not much of an exaggeration. Sales skills and I do not get along. I’m just not very good at making promises I can’t guarantee.
“We never tell recruits they can come to Nebraska and start as freshmen. Our competitors do. We don’t. Bowling’s an equivalency sport, and even though we have five scholarships, we’ve never offered anybody a full ride, including Shannon Pluhowsky, who became the greatest women’s college bowler ever when she left Phoenix to come to Nebraska. She became a world champion, and yet she was on a 50-percent scholarship here. Our competitors routinely offer bowlers full rides. I don’t believe that’s the best way to do business. If you give out full rides to the top five bowlers, where’s the growth?”
The growth is in development, the most important word in Straub’s vocabulary. “We have advantages other schools don’t have,” he said. “Once student-athletes get here, we have great facilities, great training, great academic support and a budget that will help them get the experience they need across the country. We don’t recruit low-caliber students or athletes. We seek out people with the athleticism and the potential to be really good. Sometimes, all they need is development and the opportunity to showcase what they can do.”
One such bowler is Nebraska’s Kristina Mickelson, a junior walk-on from Bellevue, Neb., and the Huskers’ No. 3 bowler in the starting lineup. “She had the best match of her career and won the big meet at Vanderbilt a few weeks ago,” Straub pointed out. “Almost all the best bowlers in the country were at that meet. Kristina wasn’t recruited by any. All she really needed was an opportunity and development. Now that she’s had that, she’d be a starter on every team in the country right now.”
Seniors Kayla Johnson and Valerie Calberry are the Huskers’ top two bowlers. Johnson is a junior college transfer from Illinois, and Calberry came to Nebraska from Brampton in Ontario, Canada. The other bowlers in Nebraska’s starting lineup are Yan Ling, a sophomore from Singapore, and Liz Kuhlkin, a freshman from Schenectady, N.Y. A lineup featuring student-athletes from Singapore, Canada, New York, Illinois and Nebraska seems like decent representation for a head coach who insists he isn’t much of a recruiter.
We’ll find out this weekend if Nebraska + development can trump an NCAA field loaded with full rides. Three years ago, the Huskers won their national bowling championship in Canton, Mich., the heart of Big Ten country. Straub described the experience as a 10 in every way, and he’s wishing, hoping and maybe even counting on another inspired run this week from a team that’s been built the old-fashioned way – from the bottom up … the Nebraska way.
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