LAS VEGAS -- When we think of sports, the smell of wood and oil often come to mind; however, the distinct sound of pins splitting apart might not.
Bowling isn't a constant in the mainstream, but it is on the rise as the Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) just began a record-breaking broadcast deal with Fox Sports. Meanwhile, college bowling is growing along with it.
Northern Arizona University added its name to the list of schools with teams in 2016. It started when Jennifer Peterson and Brandon DeLucas first came to Northern Arizona and organized seven individuals who were a part of a preexisting club.
After months of anticipation getting to the lanes, the Bowling Jacks began their journey at the Collegiate Shoot-out tournament in Las Vegas in December 2016. They finished 35th out of 36 teams that year.
Flash forward to today, and the Bowling Jacks competed in their third straight Shoot-out Dec. 19-20, finishing 29th out of 36 teams.
When asked about the progression of the team over the past three years, Peterson was adamant that it has taken a lot of effort.
“It’s taken a lot of time, dedication, tears and injuries. We’re a family, we have been from the start," Peterson said. “It’s taken a lot of heart, and we’ve all pushed really hard to get where we are and we’ve all grown."
IMPROVEMENTS ON THE PINS
The first two years it competed in the Vegas tourney, Northern Arizona finished in the bottom of the bracket, and founding team member Keenan Swanson mentioned that the first year was the hardest.
“The first year was a little rough for us. We were just starting to be a team. I was at a 120 average, we had a few good bowlers but they just couldn’t carry us on their backs. We were getting high 700s and an occasional low 800," Swanson said. “This year we are consistently getting high 800s and getting 900s a lot more.”
At this year’s tourney through all six standard games the team averaged 815, improving on the previous two years it rarely scored above 800. The Bowling Jacks finished Day One of this year’s Shoot-out in 32nd place after six standard games.
The Jacks had a few notable opponents on the first day of competition, including in-state rival Grand Canyon University. Northern Arizona finished the opening day against Grand Canyon, which finished with 951 pins to NAU’s 716.
Despite the bitter loss to the in-state opponent, Northern Arizona stayed positive and Day Two would prove to be one of the team's best performance yet.
The second day of the Shoot-out is formatted into four sets of four Baker-style games, as an emphasis on team performance is placed on the competition. Baker-style games are different than standard games in that each of the teams' five active bowlers only bowl two frames in each game, and the leadoff bowler rolls the first and sixth frames and so on down the line. The format bowling is faster-paced and evens out the competition a bit, making it fun to watch.
Northern Arizona for the first time in its history was not in the bottom-four bracket. Instead of battling to avoid coming in last place, the Jacks had a shot at the top 30 and they were hungry for a strong finish.
The Jacks began Day Two behind Colorado Mesa University, Wartburg College and UC Davis and was in a bracket with those three teams. In fact, Northern Arizona played its first four and final four games against those foes.
The Bowling Jacks also faced several tough opponents during the second day, including two teams that finished in the top three -- runner-up William Penn and bronze-winner Midland.
Ultimately, Northern Arizona jumped Colorado Mesa (32nd), Southwestern Christian University (31st) and Wartburg (30th).
GET THE BALL ROLLING
This year’s team consisted of founding members Peterson, Swanson and Tyler Scott, in addition to second-year players Lynsey McClintock, Ethan Wood, Janel Westerfield and Nick Noone. Freshman DJ Kneifel, who is also the team's head coach, also bowled.
Unlike other programs, the bowling team does not offer scholarships. The Bowling Jacks, like other Northern Arizona club sports, are self-funded and self-sufficient, and Peterson mentioned the different motives for the Jacks considering the circumstances.
“We are entirely self-funded, and I think that brings a different kind of drive to us. We all paid to be here and that just means we want to enjoy ourselves,” she said.
And the team doesn't mind the lack of having the added pressures some other programs deal with.
For instance, Westerfield transferred from one of the top bowling schools in the nation, McKendree University, because the amount of pressure is so high.
“I’m grateful to have gone to McKendree because I gained a lot of valuable knowledge -- we were ranked No. 1 in the nation," Westerfield said. “I ended up transferring and went from the top to the bottom, but I don’t regret it because I feel like being at NAU, I learned to have fun again while bowling.”
For most bowlers, the sport is meant to be fun, but adding a little competition is what the NAU team is built on. They keep it fun but push to improve as a team. It helps the members escape from their everyday grind and vent to their teammates.
Scott pointed out that other teams have taken notice.
“A lot of the teams (in Vegas) have actually told us that we are more like a team than most of the teams here," Scott said. "We may not be the best, but we are close as a team.”
The Bowling Jacks they will begin the New Year with a tournament in the Phoenix area against rivals Arizona State University and GCU on Jan. 19 and 20.