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By Daniel Farish
After two rounds of fast and furious voting, we are down to the quarterfinals of the Ultimate Queens Bracket Challenge!
Because of our live podcast schedule this week, this blog entry will cover my predictions for both the quarterfinals and semifinals. Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?
After voting this week, we will know who YOU have picked to advance to the title match!
Remember to vote for the winners of each match on the PWBA’s Twitter page, Facebook Story and Instagram Story!
Let’s take a look at the matches in the quarterfinals:
Liz Johnson (2009, 2015) vs. Shannon O’Keefe (2018)
Kelly Kulick (2007, 2010) vs. Shannon Pluhowsky (2006)
Leanne Hulsenberg (1999) vs. Lisa Wagner (1996)
Aleta Sill (1983, 1985) vs. Carol Gianotti (1989)
After our first two rounds, you know all about these eight competitors. There isn’t much more I can tell you about their amazing performances at the USBC Queens, so breakdown of each match won’t be as in-depth as they have been in my previous blogs, and we’ll get to the predictions pretty quick.
Johnson and O’Keefe have dominated the Professional Women’s Bowling Association (PWBA) Tour since its relaunch in 2015. Johnson racked up three straight PWBA Player of the Year awards from 2015-2017, winning 10 titles, with half of them being majors. This includes four straight U.S. Women’s Open titles, starting in 2013 (the U.S. Women’s Open was not held in 2014).
The 2018 and 2019 seasons belonged to Shannon O’Keefe, primarily the latter season.
In 2018, O’Keefe won twice in the first four events (including the Queens) but failed to visit victory lane the rest of the season. She remained consistent and always a threat, tallying six more top-five finishes during the year to edge Danielle McEwan for the PWBA Player of the Year award.
In 2019, O’Keefe won five times, including three of the last five events AND the PWBA Tour Championship, to run away with the award for the second consecutive year.
These two have been the class of the field since the relaunch and will battle it out to see who comes away with the win in the 2010-2019 region.
As we tallied the votes after each round, one thing became apparent – Kulick and Pluhowsky have great fan bases. They recorded three of the four highest voting totals during the first two rounds.
Each of you has your own criteria for voting, whether it be the bowler’s skill level, accomplishments, personality, etc. Maybe you met one of the competitors and had such a great experience, you would vote for her no matter the poll or opponent. One thing is for sure, however.
All of you like Pluhowsky and Kulick. So, the question is…which player do you like more?
We now move to the right side of the bracket, and my oh my, this is the who’s who when it comes to all-time greats in the history of the PWBA.
The first match we’ll look at features two of the top three players on the PWBA’s all-time titles list.
Leading the way with 32 titles is the 1996 Queens champion, Lisa Wagner. She faces the 1999 champion and 27-time titlist, Leanne Hulsenberg.
Both players overcame adversity in their respective title matches to earn their spots in this bracket.
Wagner needed a double and good count to shut out the top seed, Tammy Turner. After a blower 9 pin in the ninth frame, Wagner stayed firm and delivered two devastatingly high flush shots for the double, followed by an eight count in the fill to seal the deal.
Hulsenberg’s win came following a format change that required the advancer from the Elimination Bracket (Hulsenberg) to defeat the overall No.1 seed (Dede Davidson) twice. Hulsenberg did just that, firing a 256 in the final game to claim the coveted tiara.
Neither of these two players backed down, and it was no surprise, when the match came down to a final frame exchange between two of the greatest of all-time.
Our final match gives us Aleta Sill against Carol Gianotti, two players who have combined for 47 PWBA titles.
Sill has two wins at the Queens (1983, 1985) to go along a runner-up finish in 1984. If it weren’t for Kazue Inahashi striking out in the 10th frame against Sill in that title match, she could have won three Queens titles in a row.
Gianotti threw a double of her own to shut out Sandra Jo Shiery in 1989 and claim her title. That was one of 16 titles for the Australian, who recorded three other top-five finishes at the Queens (fourth in 1992, 1997, 2008).
Now that you know a little about each player and her background, let’s get to the predictions! Remember, these are three-game total-pinfall matches.
Johnson and O’Keefe are two of the straighter players on tour right now and would start right on top of each other on the lane. Johnson leads by six pins (266-260) after Game 1, and the two trade spares and strikes for the first half of Game 2.
The area of the lane they are in starts to burn up, forcing both players to change their angles of attack. O’Keefe moves in, Johnson moves out.
Their scores plummet in Game 2 as they try and figure out their ball motion. O’Keefe has moved to the flatter area of the oil pattern, and Johnson is in the OB (out of bounds). O’Keefe ties it up after Game 2, 184-178.
In the final game, both players move back to where they started in Game 1 and amp up their ball speed, daring the ball to go high. No one on the PWBA Tour can fire it when they need it like Johnson, and that’s evident as O’Keefe gets a little soft in the ninth frame, going through the nose and leaving the 4-6-7-9-10 split.
What was a 10-pin deficit in the game for O’Keefe turns into a 33-pin margin, handing the match to Johnson by a score of 676-639.
In the 2000-2009 final, it’s our two highest vote getters in Pluhowsky and Kulick. With each player having their respective side of the lane to themselves, they don’t have to worry too much about transition and can spend more time focusing on shot making.
It takes a few frames for each competitor to get comfortable, but once the end of the pattern tightens up and the backends calm down, the strike tallies go up.
Leading by 18 after the second game, Pluhowsky makes a ball change after she witnesses some suspect ball motion toward the end of Game 2. It doesn’t pay off, however, as she opens twice in the first four frames.
Kulick starts migrating left to get away from the 4 pins she left at the end of Game 2, only to find a bunch of flat 10s waiting for her. After her third consecutive pocket hit without a strike, Kulick makes a ball change and suffers the same fate as Pluhowsky: two opens in three frames.
Pluhowsky, meanwhile, gets out of the ball she switched to and back into her starting ball. A small move right on the lane nets her five strikes in a row, extending her lead, as Kulick continues to fish for carry. Pluhowsky advances to the semifinals by a final score of 723-664.
Hulsenberg and Wagner, as I mentioned above, are two of the greatest to ever lace up on the PWBA Tour, and, for three straight games, neither one misses the pocket. It’s all about carry for these two.
Wagner leads after Game 1, 215-204. Hulsenberg stays clean in Game 2, shooting 212 against Wagner’s 199, after the 32-time titlist failed to convert a pocket 5-7 split in the fifth frame.
Both players struggle to carry in the final game, with more slashes than strikes on the scoring monitor. Hulsenberg steps up in the 10th with a chance to double and shut out Wagner. Unfortunately, a flat 10 stands on her first offering…and then she misses it.
Another single pin conversion for Wagner in the ninth frame means she must strike and spare the 10th frame for the win. After a light swisher pocket hit carries on the first shot, her second delivery drives a little closer to the half pocket, leaving yet another 5-7 split. If she gets one, they tie; if she converts it, she advances.
Wagner masterfully slides the 5 pin directly into the belly of the 7 pin, winning the match in an unbelievable fashion, 610-609.
The quarterfinals conclude with Sill and Gianotti, who have combined for nearly 10 top-five finishes in their careers at the Queens.
Up to this point, all of the matches in this blog have been close. But, we can’t always have a match come down to the last couple of frames, or the last shot. Unfortunately, for one of these competitors, this one is almost drama free. Gianotti comes out of the gate firing, upending Sill, 258-172. The match looks like it’s over from the start.
Then, like the drop of a hat, things change.
Gianotti leaves back-to-back splits to begin Game 2, and the look of shock on her face is unnerving. Sill sees this and reacts like a shark when it smells blood in the water, and she begins to attack.
Sill strikes on nine of the first 10 shots, coasting to a 268-168 advantage, while gaining a 14-pin lead. Gianotti continues to struggle and is unable to find the pocket the final game. Sill rolls another 268 to win.
That brings us to our final four! Once again, here is who I picked to advance:
Liz Johnson (2009, 2015) vs. Shannon Pluhowsky (2006)
Lisa Wagner (1996) vs. Aleta Sill (1983, 1985)
This is where the generations of bowling fans can really get behind their horse, so to speak. Sorry, as a Kentuckian who just lived through the first Saturday in May with no Kentucky Derby, I’ve got horse racing on the brain.
This is the PWBA version of MJ vs. LeBron. Oh, and if you ever want clarification on that, just hit up the voice of the PWBA, Emil Williams Jr. He’ll set you straight.
The post-2000 bowling fans all claim that Liz Johnson is the GOAT. Certainly, her record boasts numbers that would put her in that category: 24 titles, 10 majors and the 2017 Professional Bowlers Association (PBA) Tour Chameleon Championship.
The pre-2000 bowling fans have a few names that could be mentioned in that category, but for this discussion, I don’t know if I can pick anyone other than Sill. She’s second all-time in PWBA titles (31), earned over $1 million during her career and shined at the majors, winning the Queens, U.S. Women’s Open and Sam’s Town Invitational twice each to become the first player, male or female, to win bowling’s Triple Crown twice.
My Ultimate Queens Bracket Challenge title match comes down to Aleta Sill vs. Liz Johnson. I don’t see any other way this could end. GOAT vs. GOAT.
I’ve made my picks. Now, it’s your turn.