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Penguins earn a second opportunity

Chris Kilroy / Youngstown State Athletics Members of the Youngstown State bowling team react last week at Stambaugh Stadium after finding out they were selected for the NCAA Tournament.

It isn’t the first time Youngstown State’s bowling program has found itself in position to make the NCAA Tournament — although the feeling this spring is plenty different than last year.

Feelings of disbelief and shock have been replaced by joyous celebration and a certain sense of pride.

YSU will make its NCAA Tournament debut Wednesday against fourth-seeded Louisiana Tech. The contest is a part of a double-elimination matchup at the AMF Pro Bowl Lanes alley in North Kansas City, Missouri.

The Penguins are only in their fifth season as a program, but after being in a well-earned position to make nationals last March, the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted YSU’s chances — their opportunity would have to wait one more year.

“At first, we were like, ‘OK, everything is shut down, but we’ll be back to school in a couple weeks, we’ll be able to go to conference,’ ” said senior Emma Dockery, a native of Ravenna. “And then all the sudden, we weren’t going to conference but we still believed we were in a position to make the nationals.

“So, it was almost like denial of how serious the situation was, because we were so excited and knew that we could do so good and wanted to be there for each other. Then, when (the shutdown) actually happened, personally I chose not to think about it for awhile because I couldn’t accept it.”

The bowling team became the first YSU team to return to competition following the shutdown, on Oct. 23, going 3-2 with wins over Valparaiso, Lewis, and Upper Iowa.

Their home meet in early January at Holiday Bowl in Struthers was cancelled, meaning that the Penguins have played all of their matches outside of the state of Ohio.

Hitting the road, competing and winning against nationally ranked schools like Tulane, Arkansas State and Sam Houston State, YSU came into the season ranked 10th in the National Tenpin Coaches Association Poll, and currently sits 15th on the NTCA Power Index Ranking.

The Penguins have seen the best in the nation several times this year, going against top-seeded McKendree eight times, and second-seeded Nebraska seven times — they’ve also beaten both teams this season.

Kirsten Moore, a freshman fom Tallmadge, called her parents after the Penguins’ first tournament last year with a sense of excitement, expressing the feeling that college bowling was better than she ever thought it would be.

Going from high school to the collegiate level certainly changed her perspective on the sport too.

“Being able to compete against some of the best teams in the country, it’s really awesome,” Moore said. “I just kept growing in the sport, and just found more things to enjoy about it. College bowling is so much different than high school.

“Just going to every tournament and seeing how they work and being in that environment is just a lot different, it’s really eye-opening because you don’t compete against really good schools in high school like you do in college, it’s a totally different environment.”

YSU announced the beginning of its bowling program on March 25, 2015, with Chelsea Gilliam being brought on later that year as the head coach. The Penguins finished the 2016-17 season 25th in the NTCA Top 25 Poll at the conclusion of their first season.

Current head coach Doug Kuberski was brought in to helm the program in November 2018 and has overseen the team’s first home meet in Struthers back in October 2019.

After the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, Kuberski was named the National Tenpin Coaches Association Division I Coach of the Year and the Southland Bowling League Coach of the Year.

For him, this trip to the NCAA Tournament is unlike anything else.

“The formats are pretty intense, they lead to a lot of high-pressure moments,” Kuberski said. “You have the head-to-head factor in college bowling, and most tournaments are three days long, so it’s weird.

“It’s a marathon where you try and get as many pins as you can, but you also have the sprint factor, the head-to-head factor, too, so there’s a lot of moving parts and a lot of excitement.”

As you can expect, it’s been a team effort all season with all eight YSU bowlers making their contributions. Kuberski said he has been pleased with the way his team has come together during this unprecedented season.

The team also has had the help of assistant coach Nikki Mendez, who was a member of the program’s inaugural class. She practically penned YSU’s record book after the conclusion of her four years, owning 20 school records after the 2019-20 season.

“They’ve all stepped up at different moments, it’s hard to write a better script than we’ve had this year,” Kuberski said. “We had so many challenges as a team during the pandemic and different folks finding their rhythm at different times, but everybody has played a major role in us being in this position.”

The Youngstown State roster includes Dockery, Moore, Sarah Florence (Sr, Hammonton, N.J.), Emma Wasielewski (Jr, Delaware Hayes), Alexis Sullivan (Jr, Mentor), Madyson Marx (Fr, Maplewood, Minn.), Emma Wrenn (Jr, Arlington Heights, Ill.) and Megan Grams (So, Michigan City, Ind.).

Watching in the DeBartolo Stadium Club atop Stambaugh Stadium last Wednesday, there was a feeling of vindication for Dockery once Youngstown State’s name popped up on the screen toward the end of the selection show as one of 10 at-large bids in the 16-team field.

“It’s definitely very surreal, I was talking to (Mendez) today and and the fact that when I came here four years ago, this is what I’ve been building toward,” she said. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I wanted to help create a program and a culture at Youngstown State that is a championship-level caliber program, and it’s one of the best team programs in the country.”

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