ARLINGTON, Texas – United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Liz Johnson of Palatine, Illinois, said she may have been a teenager the last time she went a week or two without bowling.
Now 46 years old, Johnson has been a globetrotting professional bowler since becoming the Professional Women’s Bowling Association Rookie of the Year in 1996, and while her path may have changed over the years, her pace has been consistent.
When the PWBA went on hiatus in 2003, she pivoted and was one of a handful of women who found a home in the Professional Bowlers Association. Not long after, she was able to embark on a successful second act with Team USA.
The return of the PWBA in 2015 provided a new opportunity for Johnson, and she wasted no time proving she was as sharp as ever, winning PWBA Player of the Year honors three consecutive times from 2015-2017.
This year again has bombarded the 24-time PWBA champion with a series of twists and turns thanks to COVID-19, but she’ll soon be navigating her way to Centreville, Virginia, where she’ll be one of 10 PWBA players competing in the 2020 edition of the PBA League.
Johnson will join fellow PWBA stars Stefanie Johnson, Shannon O’Keefe, Jordan Richard and Maria José Rodriguez in representing the Phoenix Fury in the PBA League, which will take place at Bowlero Centreville from Sept. 26-30.
This year will mark Johnson’s third appearance in the PBA League (2016 and 2017), which has been held each year since 2013, traditionally with eight teams. The field previously was expanded to 10 teams for the 2020 season, and the addition of two women’s teams brings the total to 12.
The Phoenix Fury and Miami Waves are made up of athletes who competed on the PWBA Tour in 2019, finished in the top 35 on the season-long points and were selected during a formal draft by managers Kim Kearney and Bob Learn Jr., respectively.
Johnson is no stranger to the team environment, having bowled collegiately at Morehead State, before beginning her professional journey. She also completed her 11-year Team USA career with a team gold medal at the 2015 World Bowling Women’s Championships.
O’Keefe and Stefanie Johnson were on that winning team in 2015, while Richard and Rodriguez each earned their own titles at the World Women’s Championships in 2019.
“I’ve bowled on Team USA with Stefanie and Shannon and against Maria and Jordan many times, so there’s a lot of familiarity,” Johnson said. “We’ve got five world champions on our team, and you can’t hope for more than that. It’s going to be awesome and a lot of fun.”
As the veteran of the team and a past participant in the PBA League, Johnson is hoping to serve a leadership role for the Phoenix Fury, and she prefers to lead by example.
When the competitors take the lanes in Centreville, the environment will be much different than Johnson’s previous appearances, however.
In past years, two of the most noteworthy parts of the PBA League were the unique setting at Bayside Bowl in Portland, Maine, and the fiery and energetic Portland bowling fans. This time, safety and health will be the top concerns, and all competition will take place without any fans in the building.
“Compared to the past editions of the PBA League, it’s going to be a little different, just like all sports right now,” said Johnson, an avid baseball fan. “The fans in Portland are part of what made this event what it is, and, while it will be different, it’s still team bowling, it still features the best bowlers in the world and I’m looking forward to being a part of it. We all absolutely appreciate the chance to be back on the lanes, and we’re going to have a great time.”
The race to the Elias Cup this year will begin with the 12 teams, featuring the top stars from both the PBA Tour and the PWBA Tour, being split into two divisions – Carter and Anthony – named after two of the sport’s greatest competitors, Don Carter and Earl Anthony.
Qualifying at the PBA League will kick off Sept. 26 at 10 a.m. Eastern and will be broadcast live on FloBowling. Competition will move to FS1 starting Sept. 27 at noon Eastern, with the Anthony Division quarterfinals getting head-to-head match play underway. The championship match will take place Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. Eastern.
PBA League competition features the Baker format, which requires each of the teams’ players to bowl two frames to complete each game.
The Phoenix Fury will compete in the Carter Division, while the Miami Waves will be in the Anthony Division.
The Miami Waves roster will include Danielle McEwan, Dasha Kovalova, Clara Guerrero, Liz Kuhlkin and Missy Parkin.
With the 2020 PWBA Tour season canceled due to public health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, the amount of time Johnson has spent on the lanes may have changed slightly, but she never lost focus or passion. If anything, any thought of burnout or slowing down permanently have been pushed well out of sight.
“To be able to do what we love again will be awesome,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, in recent years, it has been tougher and tougher to travel and compete like we do, but each time I step on the approach, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I realized during everything lately that I have as much passion for bowling as ever, and I look forward to doing much more of it.”
While waiting for the world and sport of bowling to get back to normal, Johnson has remained committed to her physical conditioning, which includes swapping regular gym visits for at-home workouts, often focused on keeping her legs and knees strong.
Bowling-wise, Johnson has tried to maintain a relatively normal routine, but with a lot less miles traveled.
“Slowing down a little was OK, but I never stopped working,” Johnson said. “And, not much changed when it came to bowling. I still worked at my game. I have been practicing a few days each week and bowling in events on the weekend, especially since June, when things started to open up. In practice, I’d be away from anyone else, and I had my headphones to listen to my music. I was able to get some reps and games in and still work on things to keep myself sharp and my timing intact.”
Johnson recently cashed in a PBA regional event for the first time in a few years and appreciated the chance to experience top-tier competition again.
Though she knows there’s a difference between being in shape and in bowling shape, she’ll continue to work on both aspects until it’s time to join her teammates in Virginia.
She’s also very appreciative of the opportunity to be one of the 10 PWBA members selected for the PBA League this year, and she’s motivated to make her team and manager proud.
“Even with the career I’ve had and the things I’ve gotten to experience, I was very humbled and proud to be picked to be on this team, especially with Kim as the leader, because she’s a great competitor and an even better person,” Johnson said. “It’s true, the guys don’t like getting beat by the girls, but there’s definitely a mutual respect out there. It will be a lot of fun, no matter what happens.”
The Portland Lumberjacks, led by USBC Hall of Famer Tim Mack, hoisted the Elias Cup in 2019. The team included the 2019 Mark Roth PBA League Most Valuable Player Wes Malott, Kris Prather, Kyle Troup, Ryan Ciminelli and Mitch Hupé.
In 2020, Mack’s team will include Malott, Prather, Troup, Packy Hanrahan and Sweden’s Martin Larsen.