Monday, May 8, 2017

Attending the 2017 PWBA Storm Sacramento Open

As I wrote in my previous post, I used to enjoy watching male professional bowlers more than I did female ones because they receive more publicity and their games are generally more powerful. But then the renascent PWBA and New Hui Fen and her Singapore teammates (or, as I like to call them, the "Singapore Slingers") came to my home house of Fireside Lanes near Sacramento, CA last May, and I became as big a fan of the female pros and a bigger fan of Hui Fen than I am of the male pros. 

As I explained previously, the average bowler, and especially old guys like me, can never come close to throwing it like Belmo, Osku, or E.J., but we might be able to at least crudely approximate the masterful techniques and results of a New Hui Fen, Danielle McEwan, Kelly Kulick, or Liz Johnson and be fairly effective in our leagues or local tournaments. I believe that emulating Hui Fen's relaxed fluidity, effortless release, and outward equanimity as best I can has helped my game immensely over the past year. And so I think most of us have as much if not more reason to follow the women's game than we do the men's.

So, I was delighted to learn months ago that the PWBA was returning to Sacramento this May for the third consecutive year. But I was extremely disappointed that Hui Fen and her team weren't on the roster and that she didn't know, even a few weeks out, whether they were coming or not.

I finally resigned myself to their not coming but still looked forward to the Storm Sacramento Open on May 5-6. And then one day out of the blue, Hui Fen messaged me that she and some of her teammates would be competing in Sacramento after all, and I was like a little kid anticipating the imminent arrival of Christmas Day.

That anticipation swelled to near manic excitement the day before the tournament began when I drove the ten or so miles from my house to Steve Cook's Fireside Lanes that Sacramento summer-like evening to watch the ladies warm up for an hour-and-a-half. When I began walking from my car to the building, there was the legendary Kelly Kulick walking right in front of me, and I shyly said, "Hi, Kelly" to one of my lifetime bowling idols.

When I got inside, there were a goodly number of the best female bowlers on Earth waiting for their practice session to commence, and, as corny as it may sound to the uninitiated, I don't know that I could have been happier anyplace else on Earth.

But it became immediately apparent that I wouldn't be seeing stratospheric scores over the next couple of days. Though, for reasons I still don't fully understand, the PWBA wouldn't be releasing the oil pattern specs until weeks later, it was obvious that the oil pattern went very long and would require well-executed shots with the right equipment from a tight, inside line to hit the pocket and carry with any consistency, and that superb spare-shooting would be imperative. In other words, it was going to be a challenging grind-fest to the Casher's Round, match play, and the stepladder final.

And that's what it was. I think 279 may have been the highest score of the tournament, a 194 average was enough to place in the top 32 for the Casher's Round, and a 207 average was enough to make the top 12 for match play.

What I saw again and again was players executing a great shot for a strike and then missing by just a tiny bit to the right or left or throwing the ball with just a little more or less speed or with a slightly different release in the next frame and missing the pocket entirely to leave a nasty washout or split respectively. And if right-handers threw the ball outside ten board, the ball would skid as though on ice and they'd be lucky to get a three count, and lefties were playing deep inside. It certainly wasn't the Fireside house shot that enabled an old and mediocre bowler like me to average 218 for 136 games this season in my senior league throwing old urethane equipment.

A case in point was the struggles of my favorite bowler New Hui Fen. Last year she was the only right-hander to make the televised stepladder final of the Sacramento Open. And, for almost two games of the stepladder final conducted on last year's oil pattern but held in Las Vegas weeks later, she made the pattern look, in the words of commentator Kelly Kulick, "like league" with powerful strike after strike after strike. But she wrestled incessantly with the lanes this time around. She'd throw one or two great shots and then miss a little right or left or with some other aspect of her delivery and leave washouts, splits, or multiple pin spare combinations that sucked the pins from her score. She seemed to have almost no margin for error, and many of her high-rev shots went high, since she was especially afraid to miss right in the long oil. I had the impression that by late in the Casher's Round Saturday morning, she was mentally exhausted even though, at least on paper, she remained in contention for the top 12 and match play until she was a few frames into her final game.

But it also became apparent that some of the players were likely to do comparatively well with their games and the way they were playing the lanes. Liz Johnson, Rocio Restrepo, and Diana Zavjalova, among others, distinguished themselves relatively early on with their consistently good shotmaking and scoring. 

Rocio qualified first last week in the Sonoma County Open on a very challenging flat pattern, and if someone were to ask me who I thought will win PWBA Player of the Year this season, I'd pick Rocio without hesitation. First of all, the Singapore bowlers will only be bowling three tournaments here this season because their main focus is on team competition overseas that takes place during the same time as most of the PWBA season, while Rocio will probably bowl every tournament if she's physically able. Second, there seems to be no lane condition out there right now that Rocio can't hit and carry on as well as anybody. And finally, Rocio may be small in physical stature, but she's a tiger on the lanes. She seems to put everything she's got into every shot, and this appears to keep her enthusiasm high and her focus sharp through every game if not frame of the tournament. I don't see anybody else out there who appears to want to win as badly as Rocio does, and when you combine that attitude with her great physical and mental game, you have a potentially dominant combination. I'd pick Liz Johnson, the previous two seasons' Player of the Year, and the formidable Danielle McEwan as Rocio's main competition for PoY.

In my next blogpost, I'll have more to share about the Storm Sacramento Open and, especially, about some of my personal reflections on my experiences over those two wonderful days.