LINCOLN — In bowling, Nebraska women’s coach Bill Straub explains, some lanes are about as rough and scuffed up as carpet. Others can be slick and flat like linoleum. NU bowlers know this, and accordingly bring five balls per player to each tournament just in case.
What the Huskers don’t necessarily expect is for those lanes to change overnight. But as Nebraska rolled the first few frames of its NCAA championship match against Vanderbilt in Canton, Mich., on Saturday, Straub and assistant Paul Klempa realized: That’s exactly what happened.
The TV lights from ESPNU’s broadcast had baked and dried up the oil applied to the lanes and essentially reversed the conditions from the entire week. Where the ball had previously arced quickly, it didn’t arc at all. Where a bowler could previously trust the ball to keep its line, it was suddenly losing traction.
“Quite frustrating,” senior Kristi Mickelson said.
With the TV lights shining, the lanes played completely different, agreed sophomore Liz Kuhlkin.
“It really took a lot of mental preparation to stay focused and not let that affect our play,” she said.
Straub said Mickelson and Kuhlkin were “being kind” about the differences. The lane changes were the equivalent of a golf hole playing a par-3 one day, and a par-5 the next.
Nebraska initially struggled to adjust. In a best-of-seven game match, NU lost two of the first three games. Straub and Klempa tried to figure out how to best align their bowlers at release and whether to change balls. They did both, taking a risk that would eventually result in a fourth national title. The Huskers dug out of their bags 12-year-old, nicked-up balls.
“That’s ancient in the life of bowling balls,” Straub said. Normally, Nebraska uses balls just a few months old with nary a flaw. But the Huskers haul along these old balls just in case they find a lane that’s hard to predict. In Canton, they found it.
“It’s that 1-iron in the back of the bag that you never use,” Straub said. “But all of the sudden, you’re confronted with a situation where you have to use it.”
The older balls gained more traction. In the final four games, Nebraska won 3.5 points and its fourth national title. At home, NU coaches and athletes watched and cheered via social media. Husker basketball coach Tim Miles had basketball players over to his house, and tweeted a picture of NU bowler Elise Bolton walking back to her seat before the ball had reached the pin for a spare.
“Love it! The walk off!” Miles’ tweet read in part.
Plus, Straub said, Nebraska baseball coach Darin Erstad reached out to him and Klempa for advice.
“Klempa’s offering to shag balls, and I’m going to be a bat boy,” Straub joked.
NU players have received an equally strong reception from their fellow Husker athletes. After the Huskers won, they spent a few minutes laughing over how many texts were on each player’s cell phones. They marveled at the response on Facebook and Twitter. When four of them went to NU’s Student-Athlete Recognition Banquet on Sunday at the Embassy Suites in Lincoln, they were greeted immediately by other Huskers congratulating them.
But that was a prelude to what new Nebraska Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst had in store for the team at the beginning of the banquet.
I need to talk about success, Mickelson remembered Eichorst saying to a full room, and I need to have the Nebraska bowling team stand up. Eichorst didn’t have to say why. The room of NU athletes cheered, because they knew.
“There are girls that I have never met before, who have been Husker (athletes), who are writing on my Facebook wall telling me we have what it takes and that they’re proud to call us their teammates,” Mickelson said. “There’s nothing better than that. Girls that we’ve been looking up to — for, like, forever — are proud of us. That’s great.”
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