Randy York’s N-Sider
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Bowling, Anyone? Can Husker Team Change Your Perception?
The top-ranked Nebraska Women’s Bowling Team seeks its third NCAA national championship in the last five years this weekend, and it gets an opportunity similar to one the Husker volleyball team capitalized on two years ago – a national championship event requiring a quick interstate jaunt from Lincoln to Omaha.
Omaha’s Thunder Alley, the bowling equivalent of the Qwest Center, is hosting the NCAA Tournament. Barely six months old, Thunder Alley is a multi-million-dollar, 40-lane facility that’s part of an upscale, 86,000-square-foot entertainment complex that also includes a 40-game arcade, an electric go-kart track, a laser tag arena, billiards tables, a volleyball court, a restaurant and a sports bar.
Fortunately, the non-bowling facilities will be shut down Thursday, Friday and Saturday so the entire spotlight can focus on the female student-athletes and Saturday’s 7 p.m. nationally televised finals (on ESPNU).
Nebraska Coach Bill Straub knows what everyone is thinking. If you’re like nine of every 10 people he talks to, you hold your arms out, turn your palms up, shrug your shoulders and ask Straub that all-important, one-word question: "Bowling?"
Straub admits that "Bowling, anyone?" doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as "Tennis, anyone?" because 60 million Americans already claim to be bowlers. The problem is that bowling – unlike tennis and golf or even billiards and fishing (weekend TV mainstays) – is not widely considered to be a truly competitive sport.
Even Barack Obama, who recently rolled a 37 in a "fun" 7-frame game while campaigning for the Pennsylvania primary, has contributed to the bowling-as-a-joke mindset. Jay Leno and David Letterman lampooned Obama all last week, and their late-night funnies about a left-handed, gutter-ball throwing presidential candidate continue into this week.
Straub understands the recreational stigma attached to bowling, and he meets the image issue as head on as he would while trying to knock down a 10 pin.
"Between 85 and 90 percent of the comments I get are from people who don’t see bowling as a competitive sport," Straub said. "People seem to have fun making fun of bowling, especially as a collegiate sport. We’re in our fifth year of being sanctioned by the NCAA, but people’s perceptions haven’t really changed much."
Instead of being defensive about the inaccurate perception of collegiate bowling, Straub will joke about it himself.
"People come up to me all the time and ask: ‘So just what in the world does a bowling coach do?’ And I say: ‘Well, someone has to go get the Pepsis and the Val’s pizzas, so basically that’s what I do.’"
He’s kidding, of course. Straub, a 6-foot-5, 57-year-old former professional bowler, conducts practices that usually last about three hours. During those practices, he’s constantly analyzing technique and how he can help improve it.
Lindsay Baker, the 2006 National Player of the Year, a two-time All-American and the only senior on Nebraska’s No. 1-ranked team, has certainly benefited from Straub’s instruction. The Amherst, N.Y., native ranks first in the NCAA’s pre-national championship individual rankings.
Cassie Leuthold, a sophomore from Black Hawk, S.D., is the Huskers’ No. 2 bowler. The other three starters are all freshmen – Katie Ann Sopp from Circle Pines, Minn., Jasmine Laugerman from Brooklyn Center, Minn., and Christine Bator from Warren, Mich. Straub also praises the development of Nebraska’s two alternate players – Kaleena Henning, a junior from North Platte, and Kayla Stram, a freshman from Grand Rapids, Minn.
As much as he enjoys and values the sport, Straub considers himself a "lone wolf" in his belief that collegiate bowling needs a rules makeover to make it more competitive and less recreational and confusing.
His biggest complaint is with what’s called a Baker-style format where all five players on each team roll two frames each in every game. Even though he realizes the Baker format is geared to feature more bowlers on television, Straub thinks it’s as counter-competitive as it is difficult to explain and understand.
"I apologize for wearing the black hat in any political discussion," Straub said. "Maybe it’s just me wondering why we always have to take the stance to explain that bowling is a sport. As long as we keep certain recreationally-driven aspects in our format, it will be difficult to go where I think this sport needs to go. Having said that, everyone plays by the same rules, and we never allow the Baker format to materialize into any excuse of any kind."
A bit of a perfectionist who has rolled 30 perfect games in his career, Straub would prefer a bowling system similar to a golf format. "In other words," he said, "multiple days of accumulated scores determine the winner in golf, and I’d like to see bowling follow the same logic – where every pin counts, just like every stroke counts."
On Thursday, eight teams will be split into two blocks. They will bowl four regular team games and five Baker matches. Total pin-fall will determine seeding for Friday’s competition, which consists of two College World Series-style double elimination brackets. The winners of those two brackets will meet in Saturday’s championship.
The NCAA Women’s Bowling Committee selected the eight national championship qualifiers, including Arkansas State, Central Missouri, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Minnesota State-Mankato, Nebraska, New Jersey City University, Sacred Heart (Hartford, Conn.) and Vanderbilt.
"I know most of those schools aren’t exactly household names," Straub said, explaining that in terms of power rankings, women’s NCAA bowling is similar to women’s NCAA hockey, where such schools as St. Lawrence, Mercyhurst and Clarkson are ranked among the nation’s Top 10.
Straub is as meticulous in his pre-tournament analysis as he is in his own preparation to compete. The most successful bowler in Nebraska state history, he set a state league record with a 233 average in 1979 – a record that held up for 25 years. Just last year, he finished his 99-game league with a 235 average, showing his relentless pursuit for continuous quality improvement. His wife, Kim, was a similarly driven bowler. A four-time All-American at Nebraska, she was the National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association Bowler-of-the-Year.
Straub’s individual excellence is superseded only by his commitment to his team. He has spent 20 years as Nebraska’s bowling coach, including the first 11 as a volunteer coach for the men’s and women’s club teams. He didn’t become a permanent head coach until taking over the women’s program nine years ago. Under his leadership, the Huskers have won nine national championships in the last 15 years – seven women’s titles and two men’s titles.
Not bad for a guy who started bowling when he was 8, turned pro when he was 21 and had no designs whatsoever to coach the sport.
While balancing his productive pro career with farm management in Avoca, Neb., a small community near Lincoln, life was good for Straub. He didn’t envision any changes until Rollie Hughes and Steve Mears approached him to measure his interest in volunteering to coach the men’s club team. Hughes managed NU’s Student Union bowling facility, and Mears was a fellow pro bowler who wanted to help Hughes find the right man.
Even though he was beating some of the world’s best professional bowlers on a regular basis, Straub said he "couldn’t even spell the word coach, but I was intrigued with the process, so I said ‘yes, I’ll volunteer my time’ for the sake of the sport I love most."
Without a strategic plan or a baseline of information, Straub decided to benchmark his approach with what many considered to be the foremost teachers in the history of bowling – Dick Ritger, Bill Taylor, Fred Borden and Tom Kouros.
"I paid my way and audited the Ritger Academy first," Straub recalled. "Taylor taught the pros, so I let him teach me, so I could teach others. Borden headed Team USA for years, so I discovered he also had some important things to teach. And Kouros specialized in more effective program teaching, so that certainly applied to me.
"I always figured if I quit learning about the sport, my teams wouldn’t be very successful," Straub said.
The bowler, coach and self-proclaimed critic is about to find out if his young team can handle the pressure of a national championship challenge in its proverbial back yard.
If the Huskers indeed win their third NCAA title in five years – and first in their home state – the question is simply this: Will your perception of that accomplishment be different than it would have been if you didn’t know better?