I had the opportunity to interview the Nebraska women’s bowling team on the eve of the NCAA Championship tournament. Nebraska finished as the runner-up last year and enters this tournament as the #1 seed and the favorite to win it.
The games will take place in St Louis, Missouri, starting on April 12 with the championship match on April 14, broadcasted nationally on ESPN.
On to the interview!
Head Coach Bill Straub has been the skipper for Nebraska women’s bowling team since 1996. Over that time, Nebraska has won national championships in 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2013, and 2015 - a total of eight.
Nebraska won the first and second ever NCAA championships occurring in 2004 and 2005. Last year, the Huskers finished as the national runner-up reaching the NCAA National Championship for the fifth consecutive time, and Coach Straub was awarded the national tenpin coach of the year. Nebraska is the only program to qualify for the NCAA championship since its creation.
Nebraska has also never been ranked lower than seventh in the top 25 ranked teams.
Coach, you have had a ton of success here at Nebraska. What is the key to sustaining a program at such a high level for so long?
Coach Straub: Well, it can’t be my job recruiting; I am a lousy recruiter. The people who have gone through the program have been nice enough to tell other people “I like Nebraska” and knock on their door. I am very lucky to have people doing the knocking.
So my second question is how do you recruit for Nebraska.
Coach Straub: We are lucky enough to have Kelly and Julia to be in the same group. They get picked for national teams and travel around for the USA. Invariably, whether you are in some place in Europe or in Asia, the locals will ask how they got to be so good, and they’ll just say “at the University of Nebraska.” That helps a lot.
Julia Bond: I think that the bowling kinda does the talking. We’ll just go places with our athletic gear on and people would start asking us questions.
Kelly Belzeski: When I was a youth bowler, I would ask about bowling colleges and Nebraska was always said to be the top one. I was just drawn to it.
Julia Bond: It is hard to go through the college process without people asking you about Nebraska. “Have you looked at Nebraska?” It is hard to not hear that name when going through the recruiting process.
When you came to Nebraska and met the coach and went through the facilities, did you deliberate? Did you look at other schools?
Julia Bond: I only made two visits: here [at Nebraska] and Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt was my first visit and they had a great campus; the team was great. In my head, I was like “wow Nebraska is really going to have to step it up,” then I came here and my mind was blown. The campus is so beautiful. This facility blew me away when I came here.
Kelly Belzeski: I went on four visits to different schools. I first came here on an unofficial visit and then I was invited back for an official visit. The official visit was amazing because I got to see all the facilities and the stadium where we do our studying, and we have life skills with the community outreach program. The coaching staff was amazing, so it was an easy choice for me.
Julia Bond: The girls were big a thing for me too. It felt like home when I came for my visit.
Kelly and Julia, did you have any personal goals for the start of your senior seasons as they begin to wrap up now?
Kelly Belzeski: My main goal is to win a national championship with my team.
Julia Bond: That is honestly the goal every year. Also to do better than we did last year. Always trying to improve, either by a little or a lot. Personally, our face and name are on that wall. It is always nice to get the All American stuff like that. I really agree with Kelly that getting a national champion is the number one priority.
Kelly Belzeski: Nothing is more special than winning a championship with your team. We did it our freshman year and wanted to do it again.
What is a typical day in the life of a Nebraska Bowler? What is the training regiment?
Kelly Belzeski: We have workouts at 7 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The whole team eats breakfast together at the stadium. From there we break off for classes and then come back here (East Union Bowling Alley) for practice around 2 (p.m.). Some girls get here earlier and eat lunch. Practice goes from 2:00 to 5:00 (p.m.) and most of the girls go to the stadium to eat dinner. The rest go back to their apartments or where they live to eat.
Julia Bond: Then the normal studying, getting stuff done. I feel like generally, we all together. We are almost always together.
Do you help recruit for the next classes?
Kelly Belzeski: There are NCAA rules against some of it. The bowling community is large, but it is also small. So we know people and people are always talking.
Julia Bond: Sometimes people will gravitate towards you. Those who are brave enough will approach us. Sometimes people get kind of scared (to approach us). People come to us with questions; we don’t go out too far out of the way. The bowling community is like a big family to a certain extent.
Coach, how is it being able to coach your daughter growing up and now being able to coach her at the collegiate level?
Coach Straub: It is a bit of a question for the team as well, but my efforts are I have ten daughters on the team, at least in the figurative sense. If I don’t treat everyone the same, then it seems preferential. We have such a cohesive group, a whole bunch of nice people. The more I can treat them all like I’d like to think they’d think their father treats them, we are even more cohesive and it works real slick. Meghan doesn’t add more complication or more smoothness. I think she just fits in; we treat them all the same.
You have had a lot of different teams throughout the years, and each team is a bit different than the rest. How is this team different and unique?
Coach Straub: It is real unique in its difference. We have never had a team of 10 Musketeers as we do now. We have people come to us that were spectating our events with five of them playing and they can’t tell by watching who is actually playing and who is cheering them on. It is a very cohesive group and we are very blessed by that.
Another great Nebraska Coach John Cook is frequently vocal about changing rules in women’s volleyball to keep growing the sport every year. What would you change about women’s bowling at the collegiate level to grow the sport?
Coach Straub: There is an elephant in the room about everywhere we go. It is something the general sporting world doesn’t talk about. Nothing out there is more of an obstacle for bowling than its image in general. As an image, we do our best to not be apart of. We ask the girls and they respond terrifically.
If they are going to act walking around campus like a bowler, it makes it tougher. If they act like they are just trying to fit in being another student-athlete, it works slick and they succeed doing that. I think our girls are treated like they were another athlete on campus whether it be volleyball, softball, or women’s basketball. Maybe the heights will change but the general appearance and how they act and react is about very much par to par.
Does Nebraska have any rival teams or any teams you like beating every year?
Julia Bond: (Smiles)....Yeah we do..
Coach Straub: The more we focus on beating somebody, the harder it is do our job. There are certainly people who are tougher year to year. We have people that have gone through the program, which are the next two most successful teams: McHenry and Arkansas State. They both have roots at Nebraska. The coaches at both places, the guy and McHenry and Arkansas State when I was allowed to coach the men’s teams too that have been very successful.
The coach at McHenry is married to the girl who is the most successful pro in the world right now. Those are the two that are the toughest to best on a skill level, not an emotional one. The emotions are how well we can do our own job. If I can coach better than the next guy, we have a better chance at winning. If the players can make their own shots the best their skills allow, we are not supposed to be beaten. Doesn’t mean we won’t be. If they can play the best their skills allow, then we can come home successful.
Julia Bond: From a player’s standpoint, since we are all from different places, we have friends on other teams. Sometimes that can fun for us to talk about afterwards. After it is all done, we can approach each other and talk and be friends.
Coach Straub: It is not a team sport per se. We are not trying to be a friend on another team. We are trying to succeed on what we are trying to do. Bowling is small world, everybody knows everybody else. Some are your friends, some are not quite so much so.
Are there any fun celebrations that you do as a team, similar maybe to the bench mob in basketball?
Kelly Belzeski: Our team? Not really.
Julia Bond: We are pretty laid back. Maybe a nice dinner afterwards. Just really intense high fiving and lots of screaming. We don’t use more energy than we have to.
Coach Straub: At times, the stronger you react gives the opponent that you care about how they are doing. We try to have it be, not enforced, but low-key. The more we can disregard our opponent, the better chance we have at doing our job.
What separates a good bowler from a great bowler?
Kelly Belzeski: The mental game. I think the way you handle your emotions, like coach was saying earlier. Good players might be skilled, but if they don’t have their emotions in check and their mental game is not on top of it then they won’t be that great player. I think our coaches do a great job at making sure not only our physical game is great but our metal game is also great.
At what point did either you players realize “hey I am pretty good at this, maybe I can do this in college?”
Julia Bond: In high school. Doing scholarship tournaments. The point of doing those tournaments was to get scholarship money for colleges. When you are doing match play, you are going against people and you can see groups of people that you are better at.
Kelly Belzeski: In high school, when I started competing in outside tournaments competitively, I started meeting older people that were in college. They would always talk about college bowling.
Early in February, Nebraska finished 7th at the Prairie View A&M Invitational. Since then Nebraska has finished first in the Crusader Classic, SFA Stormin’ Ladyjack Invitational, Central Missouri Mid-America Invitational, and the Big Red Invitational.
What changed to have the team turn back to dominating again?
Coach Straub: The event, in my opinion, the team suffered from pilot error. Meaning there were too many mistakes at the most inappropriate times from the equipment they were using or something physical or emotional. The times I fouled up the most were the most troublesome times. They had maybe three loses that should never have happened. If anything came out of those seven losses, it was that event is over and go back to work. Nobody was crying about the loses and nobody beat me. The loss falls on my shoulders.
Julia Bond: We appreciate that. We felt pretty bad about ourselves when it was happening. I am not saying it was a fluke, but that is how I have looked at it since.
With the NCAA tournament around the corner, what is the training regiment? Does it change at all?
Kelly Belzeski: We are pretty similar throughout the whole season. We focus a lot on our fundamentals, always going to back certain things each player needs to work on. We also include more of the format that we bowl at Nationals. Usually we don’t bowl as many baker individual games, so we try to include in practice what we are going to be doing.
Julia Bond: In the past couple days, we have focused more on ball choices because with the format differences this year we don’t have that one day to see what works and what doesn’t. This year, we have specifically focused more on ball choices to be better prepared. Everything else is pretty much the same. I think our regiment has been pretty solid this year.
Most memorable moment up to this point?
Julia Bond: Ours is probably the same.
Kelly Belzeski: National Championship our freshman year?
Julia Bond: Well yeah that is most memorable, but I was thinking of UMES (University of Maryland Eastern Shore).
Kelly Belzeski: Last year at nationals, we had to do a roll-off against UMES.
Julia Bond: There was a score correction and it turned out we tied. We had to do a roll-off and every shot was crucial for us. We were in the losers bracket at that point so if we lost, we would have gone home. We all needed to strike and we basically did. Our freshman year definitely, that one just feels nice. It started our college careers on a good note.
Are there are any alumni that come back and hang out with the team?
Julia Bond: Mostly in the Summer they come back. When there are tours stops going around. During the season not so much.
Kelly Belzeski: Some of the former players we bowled with like Liz Kuhlkin. I still talk to her daily. Some former players at tournaments will reach out to us and want to bowl with us.
Coach Straub: We are in flyover country. We go where they are. They don’t often come our direction. The Alumni are very close to what we do; they just don’t come to Lincoln.
Any closing thoughts?
Coach Straub: I am going to go with the most memorable being hopefully the result of next week.