SMYRNA, Tenn. -- Over on lanes 15 and 16, Vanderbilt and Arkansas State are fighting for a spot in the finals of the Music City Classic. Vandy is the home team here in the Nashville suburbs, and they have brought a crowd. After every strike there is screaming.
But down here, on lane 4 of the Smyrna Bowling Center, no one from the best women's college bowling team in the land is paying the slightest bit of attention. They have a bye to the final and have used all their practice time. So they snack from a veggie tray. They turn a set of jumping jacks into a Rockettes line-dance. They get into one of those philosophical discussions that ends with the thought that, when Eve (of Old Testament fame) got pregnant, everybody knew who the daddy was.
At least the coach, Kristina Frahm, is bent over her iPad. I look over her shoulder, expecting to see a breakdown of her team's strike-to-spare ratio.
She's playing a game called Candy Crush.
These are the Hawks from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. They have won the last two NCAA women's bowling titles, and three of the last five. They've finished first or second in every tournament this season. They're the No. 2 overall seed going into the NCAA tournament, which starts Thursday outside Detroit.
They're also the first HBCU (Historically Black College or University) to win a women's Division I title. The team, however, is neither historic nor black. We'll get to that in a second.
In an hour or so, here in Tennessee, they will demolish Arkansas State 4 games to 1 to win the Music City Classic. Just after the trophy ceremony, UMES bowler Megan Buja smiles and touches her nose. The other players frantically do the same. It turns out this is like calling shotgun in reverse. Last one to touch her nose has to pack the crystal bowling pin in her luggage. Coach Frahm loses.
All this goofiness is by design. We'll get to that, too. The story of the best women's college bowling team in the land is a little complicated. But, it turns out, so is bowling.
Competitive Bowling 101
Most players carry six balls to a tournament. Five are strike balls -- each one reacts a little differently to a given lane's grip. The sixth is a spare ball, meant to go straighter when you're aiming at one pin.
Their bowling shoes have interchangeable heels and toeplates (they attach with Velcro) to get a good slide on the line -- same as how football players change cleats depending on the turf. Moisture is the enemy, because wet soles stick on the approach. So when the bowlers need to get a drink or go to the restroom, they pull slippers over their shoes.
Oil is a big deal. The lanes are oiled in specific patterns that change with every tournament. This is the biggest difference between bowling with your buddies and bowling as a sport, and why you would suck at the latter.
The oil patterns change the spin of the balls and push them to the inside or outside, like the contours on a green at the golf course. Bowlers have to adjust their shots to the oil. Then they have to keep adjusting as the oil spreads out over time. (Lefties have it easier; fewer lefties, less spread, more consistent lanes.)
The oil patterns are named for cities. The Music City Classic's pattern was Stockholm.
The Melting Pot
So it's 1998, the bowling coach at UMES has just left, and the athletic director calls Sharon Brummell about the job. Her experience consists of bowling on the faculty/staff team in a local league. She's never coached anything.
The job is not considered a big deal. They've only had bowling at UMES since '96, when the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- a collection of historically black schools from Florida to Delaware -- added women's bowling to meet Title IX requirements. Brummell takes the job part-time -- she's also a counselor in UMES' financial-aid office -- and talks some of her work-study students into filling out her first team.
But Brummell isn't the type to go halfway. She goes to clinics to learn about the sport, and hires assistant coaches who know more than her. She scours bowling websites and junior tournaments for high schoolers hoping to be recruited. (Now there's a bowling combine like the one for the NFL.)
By 1999 more than 40 schools have women's bowling teams, which crosses the threshold for the NCAA to make it a championship sport after a five-year grace period. Brummell brings in bowlers from the Midwest and Northeast, where high schools have bowling teams. These students have two things in common: 1) they can really bowl; 2) they're white -- at an historically black university.
"It never was an issue," says Brummell, who is black. "I wanted bowlers. And once you start winning, nobody cares."
UMES started winning. The Hawks finished seventh in the first NCAA championships in 2004. They finished second to Vanderbilt in 2007. That season, Brummell saw a video of a young bowler from Colombia named Martha Perez. Bowling is big in much of Latin America, but colleges don't offer bowling scholarships. U.S. schools hadn't reached into Latin America for bowlers, either. But Brummell did. She signed Perez, and in 2008, the Hawks won the national title.
Perez told her friends in Colombia about UMES. They told their friends in other countries. The little HBCU in Maryland soon had a bowling team made up of Latinas and Midwesterners. They won again in 2011, led by Kristina Frahm, a four-time All-American from Oswego, Ill. Yep, the same Kristina Frahm who's now the coach.
(A quick aside: That 2011 team also won the title in the United States Bowling Congress collegiate division, which includes club teams that don't offer scholarships or have to meet NCAA requirements, as well as junior colleges and NAIA schools. Only a few schools bowl in both NCAA and USBC tournaments. UMES is the only school to win a title in both in the same year.)
After 14 years as coach, Brummell left in January 2012 to become an associate athletic director at Georgetown. Frahm had stuck around at UMES for graduate school. She knew the program better than anyone else. She got the coach's job at age 22. (I couldn't find out for sure if she's the youngest coach in college sports. But she just about has to be.)
The team tanked in a couple of tournaments after Brummell left, and eked into the 2012 NCAAs as the eighth seed. But Frahm pulled them together and they beat Fairleigh Dickinson for back-to-back titles.
Let's recap: An HBCU added women's bowling because of Title IX, hired a black coach who recruited white and Latina bowlers and became the small school (4,200 students) that dominates an NCAA sport.
That story feels … American.
Know Your Chants
The minute things start at the Music City Classic, bowling makes its familiar sounds. The thump of the ball on the lane. The industrial hum of the roll toward the pins. The woody detonation of a strike.
But over the top of all that, it sounds like a cheerleading clinic in here.
Just about every team has an intricate series of chants -- chants for strikes, chants for spares, chants for splits, chants for you-gutterballed-that-one-but-it's-OK. It's teambuilding. It's also great entertainment. We need a "Bring It On" for college bowling chants. Texas Southern won my heart with: I like it! I like it! I like the way you strike it! But my favorite was Alabama-Birmingham -- everybody leans back, flips both thumbs up and says Yeahhhhh… superstar!
UMES starts every chant Yeah! Hawk Pride! But they also have individual strike chants for every team member. Here's the UMES starting five:
Valen (short for Valentina) Collazos, a senior from Cali, Colombia: Goooal, Valentina! (Valen loves soccer.)
Megan Buja, a junior from Rockford, Ill.: Chimichanga! Chimi-chimi-changa! (That's what Megan orders every time they go to a Mexican place.)
Mariana Alvarado, a sophomore from Leon, Mexico: Un orale para Mariana! Orale! (Loose translation: One wow for Mariana! Wow! This one changes depending on the number of strikes in a row. At one point I was several lanes away when I heard Orale orale orale orale orale orale!)
Anggie Ramirez, a senior from Bogota: She got a strike! She got a strike! She-got-a-strike-she-got-a-strike-she-got-a-strike! (Anggie's an All-American. She gets lots of strikes.)
T'Nia Falbo, a senior from Greensburg, Pa.: She's on fire, hot tamale!
Every bowler high-fives the rest of the team after every ball, strike or not. The whole Hawks squad stands just behind the lane to cheer. (This makes it hard for spectators to see -- it's like sitting behind the bench at an NBA game. You could tell the fans who must have been to lots of college bowling tournaments. They brought stepladders.)
Ramirez is the star -- a lefty whose main strike ball is called the Blue Hammer. Her shot hooks so late that it looks like the ball goes through the pins sideways. She does a little Joe Morgan chicken-wing move with her left arm just before her approach. She studies every detail of the game -- how much tape she needs on her thumb so the ball fits just right, which boards to stand on so her ball hits square in the pocket. She sees every lane as a new land: "It's like an invisible world and we have to fight against it."
Everyone on the Hawks thinks hard about bowling.
But the secret to their success is getting them to stop.
Clearing the Mind
Bowling is close kin to golf. There's no defender; you just have to get the ball to the target. You learn a swing that you can repeat under pressure. You have plenty of time to make your shot. It requires physical skill, but most of the game is in your head.
After a few years of coaching, Sharon Brummell decided the game was in her bowlers' heads too much. They were too tight, too grim during matches. So she brought in sports psychologist Dean Hinitz, who works with the U.S. national bowling teams.
"The bottom line was, they thought too much," Brummell says. "We had to get the girls to quit thinking so much because they're naturally talented. They've done all the hard work before the match even starts. They just needed to go out and bowl."
This is the reason for the goofy chants, and the iPad games and the line dances. Back on campus they've already gotten up for 6 a.m. workouts, and done sit-ups for missing spares, and bowled dozens of games a week. When the game starts, they just have to get out of their own way.
"I consider it part of my job to keep everybody loose," Frahm says. "I know that sounds a little backward when you see so many angry coaches. But this is the way we can win."
The finals of the Music City Classic are played in the Baker format, named for the guy who came up with it, former American Bowling Congress official Frank Baker. The five members of each team bowl a single game together -- player 1 bowls the first and sixth frames, player 2 the second and seventh, and so on.
The teams play a best-of-seven series, and the key moment comes in the third game, with UMES and Arkansas State tied 1-1. Arkansas State is up 41 pins after the seventh frame, but as they falter, Alvarado gets a strike in the eighth and Ramirez gets a strike in the ninth. T'nia Falbo, the MVP of last year's NCAA tournament, bowls the 10th frame. We all look at the screen and do the math in our heads. If she gets three strikes, UMES wins by one pin.
Falbo lets the first ball go, and as she slides sideways across the lane the whole team slides behind her.
She's on fire, hot tamale!
She picks up the ball again. Doesn't take much time at all.
She's on fire, hot tamale!
One more shot. She takes the position, draws one quick breath. The team creeps up behind her, almost on the lane. As soon as she lets it go, you can tell.
She's on fire, hot tamale!
They go in for a group hug there at the ball return, and before long the match is over and the ceremonies begin and it's time to stick the coach with having to lug the crystal pin.
A Different World
That first night in town, they drove into Nashville and walked around the Vanderbilt campus. The lights were on at the football stadium, so they went over to look. A gate was open, so they walked in.
Vanderbilt Stadium is half the size of the ones at other SEC schools, but it still holds 40,550 -- about 40,350 more fans than came to the Music City Classic. After a minute or two, a football coach jogged out. The place was lit up for a recruit who was due in five minutes. The women had to leave.
Can we just go to the 50-yard-line?, somebody asked. The coach said sure, but make it quick.
The Vanderbilt logo is a star. So the team went out to midfield and looked around for a minute or two, there in the bright stadium, standing on the star.
Then the best women's college bowling team in the land went back to their Holiday Inn Express. They had homework.