YSU Bowling Reaches New Heights – and Aims Higher

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Alexis Sullivan sent the final bowling ball down the 25th lane. The sound of 10 pins toppling echoed through a bowling alley in North Kansas City, Missouri. It was a strike to close out the NCAA bowling championship’s second round. But it also brought a close to a dream season for Youngstown State University.

The Penguins advanced to the NCAA championship bracket for the first time in the bowling program’s short history. YSU fell to No. 1 McKendree University 2-0 and Arkansas State – a rival from the same conference as YSU – 2-1 in the Penguins’ two competitions of the double-elimination tournament.

The Penguins made their way through the regional bracket without much trouble. The Penguins won eight of their nine matches, besting Louisiana Tech (2-0), Fairleigh Dickinson (2-0) and Sam Houston (2-1) on their way to a championship bracket appearance.

“It was an experience, to say the least,” YSU head coach Doug Kuberski says. “It was a lot of fun. The ladies and myself and coach Nikki [Mendez] were in quite a zone all week and it’s something we’re going to remember forever and hopefully build upon for next year. 

YSU senior Emma Dockery has known assistant coach Nikki Mendez for years. Mendez joined Emily Dietz and Ashley Kolb in 2015 as the program’s first signees. Mendez holds the highest individual game total in YSU history – recording a 289 at the Big Red Invitational on Feb. 29, 2020.

In 2016, Dockery came from Crestwood High School in Portage County in YSU’s second recruiting class. She’s just behind Mendez for YSU’s highest all-time individual game score, recording a 273 as the second-highest total. Dockery’s score came at this year’s Big Red Invitational on Feb. 28. She owns three of the top 13 individual scores in YSU’s record book.

Mendez was not only Dockery’s teammate the year before, but a mentor the team could turn to for advice. Because of that connection, the appearance in the championship bracket this year was special.

The Penguins were on pace to reach the postseason in 2020, but the season was canceled before the start of the Southland Conference tournament.

Mendez and the first recruits couldn’t fulfill their goal of reaching the postseason. And the rest of the roster couldn’t see a reward for climbing the National Tenpin Coaches Association rankings.

It was the unfinished season.

The Penguins got another shot to complete that goal this year. The bowlers sat together as a team and watched as the names of schools slowly filled the postseason bracket. Then, finally, Youngstown State appeared, setting up the next stage of the Penguins’ season.

“Coming to Youngstown, I knew I wanted to build a program that could compete on that level regularly, so actually being able to get the initial first round there, it was pretty cool,” Dockery says.

Emma Dockery

In a way, the 2021 postseason was the completion of Mendez’ goal when she moved from Homer Glen, Illinois, to Youngstown.

“The only part that’s disheartening is that obviously every one who’s in college wants to compete at that level, and even though I wasn’t able to compete, I was able to share the experience with coach Doug and all the rest of the girls,” Mendez says.

Watching from Afar

Chelsea Gilliam checked the NCAA’s website a couple of times from Florida over the weekend. Gilliam was keeping an eye on the matches through live streams and social media, watching Mendez and Dockery fulfill one of the program’s goals.

The YSU bowling program was part of Gilliam’s legacy, after all. She was the program’s inaugural coach, helping launch the team in 2016. Due to health issues, Gilliam took a job at Bethune-Cookman University prior to the start of the 2018 season to be closer to her family.

Gilliam compiled the first class of YSU recruits, setting the tone for the program. And that class had immediate success at YSU.

The Penguins finished their inaugural season ranked 25th in Division I and had five top-10 tournament finishes. The early success helped create a dedicated culture and passion that the later classes continued.

“If we didn’t have foundation, I think it would have been harder to change that tone for years to come,” Gilliam says.

She says the goal was for the team to reach the postseason tournament by its fourth season.

“Did we think it would actually happen? Probably not, because NCAA women’s bowling is very competitive,” Gilliam says. “But we set that goal and for them to make it in their fifth year is just amazing.”

Gilliam left the program just before the start of the 2018-19 season and took the job at Bethune-Cookman shortly after. That season, the Penguins traveled to Orlando for the Sunshine State Winter Classic. Bethune-Cookman was a part of the field, but didn’t play YSU.

She did run into some parents of Penguin bowlers and talked for a little bit. But Gilliam admitted it was a little awkward and didn’t know how the players felt about her departure, so she didn’t approach the team.

“I’m just super proud of all them, even though I haven’t reached out,” Gilliam says. “I hope they realize that.”

Gilliam says YSU might not have made it to the tournament if she was still with the program. Not because of a lack of knowledge or skill, but because  each coach brings a new perspective.

Gilliam says she specializes in the fundamentals and approach. But Kuberski brings his own expertise to the program from his various coaching stops.

YSU’s former head coach was “relieved” when she saw Kuberski take over the program.

“That was my baby and I wanted to make sure that whoever stepped in was going to be able to continue moving that program forward and up in the rankings and continue the success we already had,” Gilliam says. “So when [YSU] announced him, I felt so much better and I was at ease because he knows bowling.”

She still follows the members of her recruiting classes on social media and the championship allowed her to see the progress the program made and its potential.

“Not everyone gets to start a Division I program,” Gilliam says. “Me and that first group of girls are going to be in the history of the program forever. No matter what happens, we’ll always be the first ones.

“I definitely see that program being in the tournament for more years to come.”

A Crucial Time

When Gilliam left in 2018, the program was left without a coach. Clint Daley was named the interim coach for the start of the fall portion of the campaign and Kuberski was hired in November 2018.

The Penguins’ second official head coach got a chance to recruit his own players for the following season and get some time under his belt in 2019.

Kuberski was named the NTCA National Coach of the Year for the 2019-20 season, his first full year at the program’s wheel. That year, he was also named the Southland Bowling League Coach of the Year. In that season, the Penguins went 81-43 overall and posted a team record of 34-15.

That season, the Penguins lost to Arkansas State and Louisiana Tech in the first two rounds before they were eliminated in the 2019 Southland Bowling League tournament. But it provided the bowlers and the new coach an opportunity to build a relationship midseason.

“This community here welcomed us with open arms, in terms of what we’re building and it really set the tone for the following two years,” Kuberski says. “I think that gets overlooked quite a bit how important that time period was.”

Then the COVID-19 pandemic started. The 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt and recruiting became a question. Kuberski reached out to other bowling coaches and mentors he’s formed relationships with over the years.

They told him to put extra effort into maintaining contact with players and recruits. As the lockdown began, YSU’s coach started getting accustomed to new tools like Zoom.

He took his mentors’ message to heart and learned to “zigzag” his way through the spring.

“Even though it was a weird unique time, it was a time that I embraced as the time to work,” Kuberski says.

Low Cost, High Reward

The bowling team is the least expensive women’s sport sponsored by the university, according to YSU’s 2020 Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act report. The report lists the bowling team’s total expenses for the year at $201,643.

Ten of YSU’s 11 women’s sports are listed in the report. The only sport absent is lacrosse since the report was filed in December and the program didn’t start its inaugural season until Feb. 21. 

According to the report, YSU spent $4,542,322 on the 10 listed women’s sports. Women’s basketball leads the way with $1,173,181 in expenses and then it takes a sharp decline into second place, with the women’s track and field and cross country programs listed at $642,988.

Across all YSU athletics, the bowling team is the fourth least expensive sport. Only the men’s golf team ($189,385), the men’s tennis team ($195,441) and the recently-returned men’s swimming and diving team ($200,228) cost less than bowling.

Even with the low costs, the bowling program still has its way of saving the university some money.

Sponsorships are a big part of any bowling program. All sponsorships are different, but the companies can help provide anything from equipment to bowling balls. But the sponsorships also provide recognition for the universities.

“You want to be taken seriously,” Gilliam says. “Especially in our first year, our goal was for teams to take us seriously by the end of the season. I think having sponsorship right away helps that because that ball company is taking us seriously and supporting what we’re trying to do.”

YSU has seen a couple different sponsors since the start of the bowling program. Storm, a bowling equipment manufacturer, provided 20 balls to the Penguins with discounts on equipment and apparel a month prior to YSU’s first tournament in 2016.

Ebonite became the sponsor of the Penguins in 2019 during Kuberski’s first offseason with YSU. In July, the Penguins reached an endorsement deal with Motiv Bowling for balls, bags and accessories. And the team has a deal with Turbo for finger inserts and Kameleon Sportswear provides the jerseys.

“It’s amazing what goes into bowling in terms of all the little facets – from jerseys and grips to bowling balls and bags and so forth,” Kuberski says. “It’s very important as a program to have that support from those companies because it’s just going to help things grow and build even more.”

Next Woman Up

A few other Penguins will have to step into the spotlight, much like how Dockery and fellow senior Sarah Florence had to learn to lead without Mendez and the first recruiting class.

There were only two seniors on the team’s eight-woman roster, so most players will return for 2021-22. Junior Emma Wrenn and freshmen Madyson Marx and Kirsten Moore will take over as the program’s leading scorers.

Emma Wrenn

Wrenn competed in 38 games in 2020, finishing with a team-leading 7,521 pins while also compiling a school-record 28 games of 200 or better. She was named to the NTCA All-Region Honorable Mention team and the NCAA All-Tournament team.

The freshmen also held their own in 2020. Moore compiled 5,882 pins in 30 games while Marx had 4,706 pins in 23 games. Both finished with 13 games of 200 or better.

Kuberski also has four recruits signed to join the program in the fall.

The coach is looking forward to next season.

“Having this experience is huge,” Kuberski says. “Knowing that we could do great on the biggest stage, is going to be big for us next year.”

Pictured at top: he Youngstown State University bowling team holds an NCAA semifinalist trophy after competing in the NCAA Championship tournament in North Kansas City, Missouri.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.