Back in the Fast Lane

UAB Bowling builds a new team — and new strength
By Cary Estes • Photos by Steve Wood • Video by Jeff Myers, Andrea Reiber, and Carson Young
Photo of UAB bowling athletes launching balls down lanes; headline: Back in the Fast Lane
UAB Bowling builds a new team — and new strength
By Cary Estes • Photos by Steve Wood • Video by Jeff Myers, Andrea Reiber, and Carson Young
For most people, bowling means hanging out with friends, eating nachos, and relaxing for a few hours. For the Blazer bowling team, however, a trip to the lanes can become an endurance test. Tournaments usually consist of a half-dozen matches against other college teams each day, for three consecutive days.
“If you don’t have stamina, you’re not going to succeed,” says student-athlete Madeleine McDuff. “A typical day on the lanes for a tournament is six to eight hours, with no breaks. We’re bowling back to back to back. We barely get a chance to sit down. It can be grueling.”
Not that the Blazer bowlers are complaining. They are happy their sport is rolling again after the program was put on hold for the 2015-2016 season. The all-woman team returned for the 2016-2017 season with a roster that includes McDuff, redshirt freshman Caitlin Cunningham, and seven true freshmen.

New Recruits

“The biggest challenge was starting back with only one experienced player,” says head coach Michelle Crews, who created UAB’s bowling program in 2011. “Technically we’re a brand new program again. I have eight players who had never thrown a ball in collegiate competition before this year. So we have to be realistic with our goals, even though we have a strong team.”
Strong enough that the Blazers finished second at the Jackson State Sonic Boom in Mississippi in only their second tournament of the season. A month later, the team returned to the national rankings. (By February, they had risen to number 21 in the National Tenpin Coaches Association poll.) Those early successes were the satisfying payoff to a year of work to build the new team, a task that involved both Crews and McDuff, her lone returning player.
“The day they announced the program was coming back, Coach told me she wondered if she’d be able to do this by herself,” recalls McDuff, a junior in communication studies from Katy, Texas. “I told her, ‘You won’t be by yourself. I’m with you every step of the way.’ Coach went out and found people with the same kind of personality and work ethic that we have.”
Crews constructed the team by attending youth bowling tournaments and collegiate combines, including the United States Bowling Congress Team USA Trials and the Junior Gold Championship. More than 700 bowlers from throughout the country attend these events, giving coaches the opportunity for initial contacts with numerous potential recruits in one place.
“We typically don’t recruit from high schools, because high school bowling is still an up-and-coming idea,” Crews says. The large events "have helped my recruiting options tremendously. Last summer, for example, when I was done with all of the events, I had at least 25 girls I was actively recruiting, and I offered scholarships to seven.”

Going International

That’s also how Crews found her first international recruit, Alexa Fernández of San José, Costa Rica. Fernández began bowling for fun 10 years ago, and eventually became so good that she was named to Costa Rica’s national bowling team.
“I grew up with the sport,” says Fernández, a freshman majoring in chemistry. “We don’t have high school bowling, so I played in tournaments. The coach for our national team introduced us to the combines, and after that I was determined to get onto a college team. I wanted the college experience, and to be able to get that while still bowling is amazing.
“I didn’t know where Alabama was at first,” Fernández notes. “I have no connection to the United States. So Coach is like another mom, and my teammates are my sisters. We’re a family. The support I get from my team is amazing. It’s what gives college bowling such a different feeling from any other tournament.”

Photo of UAB bowling athlete with ball rolling toward pins(Above and at top) Blazer bowlers hone their targeting strategies, form, and speed in team practice sessions.

Be a Better Bowler

Coach Michelle Crews shares her top tips to help recreational bowlers improve their scores

1. Understand your environment: “Never go beyond the foul line on the lane. Just past it is oil, and you could slip and fall. If you do go over the line, get a new pair of shoes from the front desk. Also, never stick your hand in the ball return or go out on the lane if a ball gets stuck in either place. The front desk can get someone to help you.”
2. Check your shoes and ball: “Bowling shoes are intended for sliding. Always check the bottoms to make sure they are not wet or don’t have anything stuck to them. For bowling balls, make sure the ball weight and fit are right to help prevent injury. The rule of thumb is to use a ball that is 10 percent of your body weight (though lighter weights are intended for children, with smaller holes to match). And the better the ball fits your hand, the lighter it will feel. If you bowl more than a few times a year, look into getting your own pair of shoes and a ball properly drilled for your hand.”
3. Less is more: “Many people try to “hook” the ball, but the balls at bowling centers aren’t designed to do that. They are designed to go straight. (Only the balls used by competitive bowlers are designed to hook.) The more you try to work the ball, the more likely you are to hurt yourself—and to lower your score.”
4. Rethink your target: “Most people aim for the head pin; however, the more you hit the head pin straight on, the more likely you are to split. Striking depends on entry angle and ball speed. So try aiming for the arrows instead— particularly the third or fourth arrow at the center of the lane. It’s much easier to target something close than something 60 feet down the lane.”
5. Have fun! “The great thing about bowling is that anyone can do it on any level. It’s not always about knocking down pins. Just laugh and enjoy the moment. Everyone has a bowling story to share. What will yours be?”

Photo of ball hitting pins

Published March 2017