BATON ROUGE, La.—During Saturday’s elimination match against Nebraska in the NCAA Tournament, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore was facing a difficult situation, trailing 3-1 to the five-time NCAA champions.
The Hawks showed what they are made of clawing back to a 3-3 tie, but then fell 100-88 in a five-frame rolloff when a controversial rules violation by the Cornhuskers created in a 167-167 tie in Game 7.
The result wasn’t what the Hawks have been striving for all season, but how they rebounded when their backs were against the wall — and how they respond moving forward — will go a long way toward shaping the team’s future.
“Day 1 was a struggle, but we took what we saw and we learned from it,” freshman Cayla Hicks said. “Each night, we had meetings as a team to figure out what we needed to do mentally and not just physically, so that we could be there for each other. It showed Friday and it showed today. No matter what happened — no matter the outcome — we were going to be there for each other, all 11 of us.”
The Hawks (88-46) dropped the first game 203-179 after leaving two open frames. In Game 2, freshman Brigitte Jacobs struck in frame nine and graduate student Thashaina Seraus (Oranjestad, Aruba) struck out in 10 to grab a 204-191 victory.
Nebraska took Games 3 (246-175) and Game 4 (221-212) to put itself in the driver’s seat with a 3-1 lead. But The Shore wasn’t finished.
“We worked hard all season,” Hicks said. “We knew where we wanted to go and we got to this point. We just needed to work hard and we did that today.”
Melanie Copey set the tone for Game 5 with a strike and then went back-to-back with Jacqueline Rhoda in six and seven to help the team to a 190-186 win.
Eastern Shore tied it up 3-3 with a 189-186 win as the two went back-to-back again to start Game 6 and Rhoda added another in the seventh frame.
Game 7 got away from the Hawks quickly after a few early missteps put them an insurmountable hole and they struggled to finish strong under the heavy emotion of that realization. But a Nebraska bowler was found to have left the match in Game 6 and then thrown practice shots, so the ‘Huskers vacated her points in frames two and seven of Game 7. That turned a 235-167 win, into 1167-167 tie.
That gave the Hawks one more shot to advance, but Nebraska made enough strikes to offset the zero they were forced to take in the second frame of the rolloff.
Nebraska went on to beat Vanderbilt in two straight matches and will face off with McKendree in the championship final.
“I thought that just making it here was a big statement for the squad,” coach Kayla Bandy said. “For them to make it to the national championship was Step 1. Step 2 was getting here and actually being able to perform. The first day we did not come to perform. We had a lot of nerves. We got past it going into the second day. We went from averaging 180 the first day to 200 the second day. There is a lot to be said about the development of this squad in a 24-hour period.”
For a squad that hadn’t seen the NCAA Tournament in two seasons, Bandy knows that Saturday’s loss is something to build on rather than mourn.
That’s what the team has done all year.
“We got more confidence as the season went on,” Hicks said. “We got more confidence in each other and ourselves. Every ball we threw, every tournament we went to we grew as a team and we grew as players. The place we are now mentally and physically we are the tightest we have been and we are a very deep team. We are always there for each other on and off the lanes and in the classroom.”
It’s that team bond that will continue to mold the Hawks moving forward.
Saturday was the final NCAA competition for Seraus. That means replacing and anchor and a leader next season, but Copey — who came up big repeatedly on Saturday — and Jalesa Johnson seem poised to step into a leadership role next season.
“We are losing Thashaina, who has been tremendous for our program,” Bandy said. “She was my first recruit at Maryland Eastern Shore, so it pulls at the heart strings for her to go about pursuing further education or a career and the professional tour.”
And then there is the meat of the roster made up of sophomores who arrived in Princess Anne last season and were determined not to watch the championship from home for a second year.
“The six sophomores this year did an amazing job rebounding from last year,” Bandy said. “We saw their growth skyrocket from Day 1 until now, so just for that (2015-16) freshman class alone that are now sophomores going into their junior year next year — the sky is the limit for them.”
Hicks and Jacobs, made up the freshman class this season and both made a significant contribution to this year’s squad and have bright futures.
“They were bowling a good percentage of the days here at the national championship, so they now have national championship exposure,” Bandy said.
Hicks saw first-hand what last year’s freshman class did this year and feels like she and Jacobs are ready to do the same.
“You could tell this year that they wanted it and they wanted to fight every single shot,” Hicks said. “It showed today. It showed all weekend and it showed throughout the whole season. I think (the team) can grow from this year to next year. We’ll have that same drive to want it and want to get better and make national championships again and go further.”
The Hawks have won the NCAA Championship three times: 2008, 2011 and 2012. The program also boasts two USBC Intercollegiate Team Championships: 2011 and 2013.
The team will remain in Baton Rouge to compete in next week’s USBC Intercollegiate Team Championships. Rhoda will also compete individually in the USBC Intercollegiate women’s championship.
“Every day is a new day and we just get better and better with practice or tournament no matter what it is,” Bandy said. “So, the future is very bright for Maryland Eastern Shore bowling.”