ARLINGTON, Texas - At 46 years old, it should make sense that Liz Johnson of Niagara Falls, New York, occasionally would have to answer questions about when her professional career might be winding down ... except it really doesn't.
Bowling simply isn't like other sports, and Johnson's abilities have been the standard in women's professional bowling for more than two decades.
Regardless, Johnson admits the thought has even crossed her own mind. It crept in during 2020 when competitive bowling was on standby. It was prevalent again Thursday when she had the day off because she missed the cut to match play at the first event of the 2021 Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour season.
A day later, though, after a nearly flawless performance in qualifying at the 2021 PWBA ITRC Classic, Johnson couldn't be more sure about her commitment to the sport and the new season.
The 24-time PWBA Tour champion returned to the International Training and Research Center with a new mindset and averaged almost 244 over nine games to pace the 36-player field with a 2,194 total. Those numbers could've been even higher, if lanes 11 and 12 didn't put her in her place for the second time this week.
Johnson was followed in the standings by Stefanie Johnson of McKinney, Texas (2,106), Ukraine's Dasha Kovalova (2,082), Bryanna Coté of Tucson, Arizona (2,081), and Thursday's PWBA Bowlers Journal Classic champion and two-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year Shannon O'Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois (2,080).
Caitlyn Johnson of Beaumont, Texas, a contender for this year's PWBA Rookie of the Year Award, finished 12th on Friday and earned the final spot in match play with a 2,021 total, a 224.56 average.
"I came in today with a new outlook," Liz Johnson said. "Everything I did today seemed like the right thing. I took advantage of the breaks and never looked back. I haven't been that focused in a long time. Honestly, I haven't had scores like that since, like, 1999. It showed me I absolutely still belong out here doing what I love."
The ITRC Classic is the second event of the PWBA Kickoff Classic Series, which will include three national tour stops and one regional event during its seven-day run at the ITRC, the home of Team USA.
While Johnson's performance at the season-opening Bowlers Journal Classic was disappointing, it turns out it was just an uncharacteristic day, not a sign that it's time to slow down.
On paper, and by most standards, it actually was a decent day. She earned a share of the prize money and ultimately only missed the cut to match play by seven pins. In her eyes, though, it was the exact opposite of Friday's performance, and more things went wrong than she could count.
"The first day, I had poor leverage, my pushaway was off, I didn't stay down, I played the wrong part of the lane, I made too many bad shots early and I missed spares I shouldn't have," said Johnson, who was above the cutline, before closing the day with a 184 game - on lanes 11 and 12. "I let myself get distracted by things I normally wouldn't be looking at or worrying about. Ending up outside the cut was a little tough. I used the extra day yesterday to mentally unwind, and I came in today with a clear mind."
While aiming for redemption with her nine qualifying games at the ITRC Classic, Johnson's attention also was on a bigger picture, which included simultaneously making the cut to match play in the week's third national event, the PWBA Hall of Fame Classic.
The Hall of Fame Classic, which will be contested at the ITRC on Monday and Tuesday, will include the week's top 24 performers, based on their combined qualifying totals from the Bowlers Journal Classic and ITRC Classic.
Johnson's head-turning effort Friday also helped lock up the top spot in the standings for the Hall of Fame Classic with an 18-game total of 4,096, a 227.56 average.
O'Keefe was close behind with 4,062 and followed by Stefanie Johnson (4,013), 16-year-old Junior Team USA member Jillian Martin of Stow, Ohio (3,980), and Coté (3,957).
Anggie Ramirez-Perea of Austin, Texas, the lone left-hander in the field this week, earned the final spot in match play with a 3,768 total, a 209.33 average.
Competition at the ITRC will resume Saturday with match-play rounds for the ITRC Classic at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Eastern, after which, 21-game pinfall totals, including bonus pins for each win in match play, will determine the four players for the stepladder finals at 9 p.m. EST.
The next phase of the Hall of Fame Classic will be 24-games of round-robin match play, followed by another championship stepladder. Pinfall will reset, and the five finalists will be determined by their 24-game totals, including bonus pins for each victory along the way.
"Yes, some of the thoughts had hung around," Johnson said. "Am I good enough to bowl out here for the rest of the season or even the rest of these first tournaments? Today gave me that answer. I love being out here competing, and I feel like I'm in as good of shape as ever. Sure, my knees hurt, and some days it's tougher to get out there to put in the practice, but I love competing. I'm so excited the PWBA is back, and I feel very proud to be able to be a part of it."
All of the qualifying and match-play rounds at the Kickoff Classic Series are being broadcast live at BowlTV.com, free of charge to visitors who create a login for the site. Each of the four events will conclude with formal stepladder finals, which will require a BowlTV subscription to watch live.
This week's action marks the first national PWBA competition since September 2019. The 2020 PWBA Tour season was canceled due to COVID-19.
The prize fund for each of the three national tour stops will be $65,000, with $10,000 going to each champion.
The fourth event of the Kickoff Classic Series will be the PWBA Arlington Regional, which will take place Sunday.
The 2021 PWBA Tour season will feature 20 events, highlighted by the introduction of the Classic Series events and an increase in the season's overall prize fund by nearly $400,000.