As a student at Poly, Tamera Stanton was recruited by powerhouse NCAA bowling schools such as McKendree, North Carolina A&T and even Baltimore’s Coppin State. But rather than joining an established program, she chose Mount St. Mary’s, which was sponsoring bowling for the first time in the 2018-19 season.
“I was like, ‘You know, I’m going to take a chance on the first team instead of trying to force my way onto another team and try to make a mark for myself,’” Stanton recalled Monday afternoon. “I wanted to build a foundation for the team.”
Stanton and seven other members of that recruiting class are reaping their rewards after the Mountaineers (37-18, 9-12 Northeast Conference) earned an at-large bid to their first NCAA tournament in just their third year of competition.
Ranked No. 10 in the most recent National Tenpin Coaches Association Poll, they are in a four-team, double-elimination region with No. 3 Vanderbilt, No. 5 Nebraska and unranked Medaille. They will open against the Southland Bowling League champion Commodores (40-26) on Wednesday at 9 a.m. in Kansas City and are not shy about voicing their aspirations.
“We can go out and win it,” junior Rebecca Dodson said. “We can go and show these teams that haven’t seen us that we’re not like what we were when we were freshmen. We’ve improved so much, and we know that we’re going to come out strong.”
The seeds were planted when Kenneth DeGraaf, who was wooed away from Northeast Conference rival Saint Francis, where he had served as an assistant coach, recruited 10 freshmen to fill that inaugural team. DeGraaf cast a net that brought in Stanton from Baltimore, Dodson from Florida, Barbara Hawes from Michigan, and Danielle Milo from New York by selling them on the idea of constructing a program from the ground floor.
“Obviously, I did work my butt off to reach out to these talented individuals and get them here, but they had to take a chance on a first-year program that didn’t have anything,” he said. “What we tried to really build on was, let’s build something from scratch. Let’s make our own culture instead of buying into something else. I think they kind of liked that challenge of knowing that there’s only going to be one class that can build a culture from the ground up, and they wanted to be the ones that did that.”
In its 2018 season opener, Mount St. Mary’s defeated five teams, including No. 15 Adelphi and No. 24 Kutztown, to capture the Bud Whitman Memorial in Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 13.
“When we won our first tournament in our first year, there were multiple nationally ranked teams there, and I remember specifically when they announced the teams that finished third, second and first, they announced second place was Delaware State, which was a very good nationally ranked team at the time and still is,” DeGraff said. “But the response was, ‘Well then, who the heck got first?’ And when they announced Mount St. Mary’s University, they were like, ‘Who?’ That’s kind of been what we’ve done to people. They ask that Who question all the time, and we keep on surprising ourselves, and that’s my goal for them.”
Less than two months after that victory, the Mountaineers were awarded their first national ranking, earning the No. 19 spot in the NTCA poll. As thrilling as that was, the honor inspired the bowlers.
“With getting nationally ranked our first year, it pushed us to work harder, knowing that we were capable of making the NCAA tournament and that we didn’t have to stop there,” Dodson said. “Just because you get nationally ranked doesn’t mean that’s all we had to do to prove it. It feels like since we got ranked, it has pushed us harder to work a lot harder to prove ourselves as such a young program.”
Last year, the team went 73-33, including 33-5 in its last 38 matches before the coronavirus pandemic ended the season one week before the Northeast Conference tournament.
This winter, several individuals have proved instrumental in Mount St. Mary’s success. Dodson, who is the anchor bowler, leads the team in strikes with 330 and had an overall frame fill of 87% en route to being named to the Northeast Conference second team. Stanton ranks second with 327 strikes and a 53.3% strikes rate in Baker play. Junior Amanda Yeung has an 84.8% frame fill, while Milo has a 49.5% strikes rate in Baker play. They have been complemented by a trio of freshmen, including Paige Boyd who was placed on the conference’s All-Rookie team.
Stanton attributed the program’s accelerated success to the bowlers’ appetite for more.
“I am not surprised because of the talent we have on the team,” she said. “I think we’re more than capable of making multiple NCAA championships in the future, but the talent on the team drives everything. The team coherence and chemistry drive us to where we are now.”
The Mountaineers finished fourth out of four teams in last month’s league tournament, felled by a Fairleigh Dickinson bowler rolling a perfect 300 and a Sacred Heart bowler posting a 299. But with the No. 10 RPI in the nation, the team was rewarded March 28 by the NCAA selection committee with an at-large invitation and joined No. 7 Fairleigh Dickinson, No. 9 Duquesne and No. 13 Sacred Heart as conference representatives in the 16-team field.
DeGraaf said he was “100% confident” that Mount St. Mary’s deserved a bid, but pointed out that 2019 champion Stephen F. Austin was left out.
“Teams are getting better every single year,” he said. “I had a hunch that we were in, but I’m kind of one of those people that don’t want to get my hopes too high. Obviously when we heard our name called, we were very excited.”
Count Stanton among those who were enthusiastic about the invitation.
“I think I lost it,” she admitted. “It was crazy. I have felt the thrill of being excited, but I think my excitement reached new heights. I have screamed higher before, but it was amazing.”
While the Mountaineers have won all three career matches against Medaille, the team is 0-2 against Vanderbilt and 0-1 against Nebraska. Still, Dodson and Stanton said that history doesn’t bother them or their teammates.
“I would say that everybody’s mindset is the same,” Dodson said. “We want to go out there and take each round one at a time like separate tournaments at each time. We want to do what we can do and control what we can control. I think we’re just excited and ready to let people know who Mount St. Mary’s is and let them know that we’re just like the top teams. We’re not somebody to look down on.”
Added Stanton: “I am 110% sure we are capable of winning this tournament. We have seen all of these teams, and we know what they can do, and we know what they’re capable of. We haven’t seen them this semester due to COVID, but they haven’t seen us either. So it’s going to be a bit of a shock on both ends, but I’m pretty sure we can win this.”