Two trophies riding on a bus to Wichita. A joyful 881-mile trip. Not awkward at all.
Wichita State’s bowling teams endured a lot to get to 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic ended their 2020 season with both teams ranked No. 1 nationally and riding in vans to their sectional qualifier in Fort Worth. No bowler on either the men’s or women’s team had won a national title, which is always the expectation for Shocker bowling.
On Saturday, they turned those trials and lessons of the past into a history-making day for college bowling’s most successful program. Wichita State won the men’s and women’s Intercollegiate Team Championship at Spectrum Entertainment Complex in Wyoming, Michigan.
“We knew were good enough to do this last year, as well,” said senior men’s bowler Briley Haugh. “We were bowling for more than just the team, also for the seniors last year.”
The women went 5-0 and defeated North Carolina A&T 3-2 in the final. The men, bowling later that day, defeated St. Ambrose (Iowa) University 3-2 to complete their run out of the losers’ bracket.
“Knowing that the women won, just thinking that if we lose, it will be long trip home,” said senior Brandon Biondo. “It’s going to be an awkward bus ride.”
Instead – hugs, singing “We Are The Champions,” history, lots of texts, a FaceTime call with the program’s architect and satisfaction for the new coaching staff. The Shockers need more room for trophies.
“The thing that stands out is the sheer happiness and joy on their faces when they won, and watching them share that with each other,” said men’s coach Rick Steelsmith. “Being able to see that and see how happy it made them was really cool.”
Due to the pandemic, there were no fall tournaments. That condensed the seven-tournament schedule into two months. The teams didn’t practice together for much of the school year in an attempt to limit COVID-19 disruptions.
Both teams, motivated by last season’s abrupt ending and the history of Shocker bowling, went to Michigan confident.
“I knew it before the season started,” said senior Sierra Ciesiolka. “When we were bowling the whole weekend, I refused to say anything less than we were winning. There was just no way anyone was out-bowling us.”
The women’s team returned all but one of its top bowlers from last season and added freshman Sydney Hollinger to a group of juniors and seniors.
“The hardships that we went through last year with our two tournaments going away, it just made us stronger this year,” said junior Madison Janack, who rolled three strikes in the 10th frame of the deciding match to clinch the victory.
The men’s team, Steelsmith said, clicked into rhythm at the sectional qualifier in April.
“Everything fell into place for them and that’s the day, I think, they started their national championship run,” he said. “They just weren’t going to be denied.”
That determination added another landmark to the program’s history. Wichita State now owns 22 national titles, 12 by the men. They also swept the titles in 1994 and 2009.
“We stepped into a new era,” Haugh said. “The program is in fantastic hands.”
Earlier this week, director of bowling Mark Lewis looked at the trophy case in the Rhatigan Student Center and pondered the issues that come with success. He needs more shelf space to display the Helmer Cups that champions claim. The cups are bigger than in the past, which adds to the issue.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.
The women’s team last won the Intercollegiate Team Championship in 2009. The men’s team last won in 2015 and most of the bowlers remembered early exits in 2018 and 2019.
In 2019, head coach Gordon Vadakin retired. Lewis took over as director of bowling with Holly Harris promoted to take over the women’s team. Steelsmith arrived to become men’s coach. Harris told Vadakin, who coached the Shockers to 18 national titles, the Shockers won with a FaceTime call. The final, because of TV restrictions, was not live-streamed.
“I was not about to tell him that just over the phone,” she said. “He’s a part of this, too. None of this happens without him.”