With Rigor and Mystique, Nebraska Builds a Bowling Dynasty


“It’s very old school,” said Shannon O’Keefe, who coaches the women’s team at Division II McKendree University, in western Illinois. “It’s what has worked for them, what works for them, so it’s hard to argue with.”

Yet, some still do. Justin Kostick, the coach at Arkansas State, speculated that some voters in February displaced Nebraska from the No. 1 ranking out of jealousy. Or, Kostick said, they disapprove of Straub’s methods, finding them too rigid.

Early in his coaching career, Straub said, he heard a rival coach disparage the Huskers by saying that they weren’t that good — they just don’t miss spares. One of the best compliments he ever received, he said.

“If you spare a lot, it’s like parring all the holes,” said Straub, summoning another golf analogy. “It’s difficult to be out of a golf match if you’re parring all the holes.”

That consistency can unnerve opponents. It also enhances Nebraska’s mystique.

Photo

Marikate Zabierek used binoculars to watch her sister, Briana Zabierek, a senior from Illinois, compete on the final day of the Big Red Invitational.

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

“One of the reasons why they’ve been so successful at winning the national championship, I believe, is that people get scared of the N on their chest,” said Kostick, a former Husker who got a call back from Arkansas State because of his Nebraska background. “They try too hard, and if you get amped up and squeeze too hard, the ball goes everywhere.”

Those who can compartmentalize, who can focus only on the lane and the pins during a tense match, merit attention from Nebraska during recruiting. Straub and Klempa attend tournaments, scour YouTube videos and network with friends and alumni in search of the next great prospect.

About 200 applicants contend each year for two or three roster spots, and anyone who counts bowling as a hobby and not a commitment is immediately discounted. The list is later winnowed to 10 or 15 candidates who are considered for official visits and a chunk of the five scholarships permitted by the N.C.A.A.

In N.C.A.A. women’s bowling, 78 colleges from all divisions compete against one another. Nebraska often vies with the same schools — among them Arkansas State, McKendree, Sam Houston State and Vanderbilt, the only other school from a so-called Power 5 football conference that has a women’s varsity team — for the best junior bowlers. Where the Huskers aim to distinguish themselves is in their ability to identify, appraise and cultivate talent from the next level down.

“Ideally, you won’t know who the best recruits were,” Klempa said, “because everyone else looks really good, too.”

Beyond the academic standards and bowling metrics they prioritize — does your ball revolve 15 times and zoom down the lane in 2.5 seconds or fewer? — they tend to seek out a certain kind of bowler, in pedigree and personality. They highlight women with multisport backgrounds, believing that they have both the athleticism to take quickly to suggested changes and a keen understanding of group dynamics.

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