The University of Nebraska is a women’s bowling powerhouse.
Although Nebraska has won five national championships in football, it really is a bowling school. The Lady Cornhuskers have had one of the best college programs in the nation for two decades. Nebraska has won ten national bowling titles, finished runner-up four times, tied for third place three times and has never been ranked lower than seventh in the nation.
The Nebraska bowling program is led by Bill Straub, an avid car collector who has been at the helm since 1990, when bowling was still a club sport at NU.
Straub, a Lincoln native, played on the men’s professional bowling tour in the mid-1980s. Tired of living out of a suitcase for 35 weeks each year, he decided to give coaching a try. Now in his 22nd varsity season at Nebraska, the 68-year-old Straub has mentored 28 All-Americans and nine National Players of the Year. He is assisted by Paul Klempa, who was an All-American at Nebraska in 1994 before joining Straub in 1997. Klempa, a native of Johnston, New York, served as interim head coach for most of the 2013-14 season while Straub recovered from heart surgery.
In the cornfields of eastern Nebraska, where on football game days Memorial Stadium becomes the state’s third-most populous city, Straub has assembled a bowling dynasty.
He has guided the Nebraska women to ten championships while leading the men to two. Straub has mentored eight four-time All-Americans, while seven of his athletes have made three career All-American teams. Kim Burke was a four time All-American and 1992 National Collegiate Bowler of the Year under Straub. Two years after graduating with distinction from NU, Burke took a weekend off from the women’s professional tour to marry her former coach, then headed off to an event in Hammond, Indiana.
A Nebraska native, Kim Straub is the most decorated bowler in the history of the state, and now serves as Bowling Office Manager at NU. The Straub’s – both of whom are members of the Nebraska Bowling Hall of Fame — have one daughter, Meghan, who is currently a senior bowler for the Huskers. A two-time Big Ten Distinguished Scholar, Meghan Straub has been named to three All-American teams during her four years in Lincoln.
Prior to 2003-04, when the NCAA first sanctioned bowling, Nebraska celebrated five national championships as a robust club program.
The Lady Huskers won the inaugural NCAA tournament in 2004 and three of the first six. Under Straub, NU has captured five IBC [club] and five NCAA titles. Additionally, Nebraska is the only school that has been invited to every NCAA tournament – a record 15 straight – and has its sights set on another next month, when the 2019 national championships take place outside Cleveland April 11-13.
Bill Straub’s ties to NU run deep.
His tenure began when he took the reins of both the men’s and women’s teams, winning IBC Men’s titles in 1990 and ’96 and capturing IBC Women’s crowns in 1991, ’95, ’97, ’99 and 2001. A stern taskmaster, the 6’5” Straub demands adherence to his methods. “You come here and don’t like it,” said Gazmine Mason, a 2017 All-American, “you find a way to like it or you leave.” Placing a rigorous emphasis on fundamentals, Straub has been accused by rival coaches of Clonehusking – requiring each of his bowlers to employ the same technique. A four-time National Tenpin Coaches Association Coach of the Year, he believes that bowling is golf with a bigger, heavier ball. “I’m drill crazy,” said Straub, who studied the teaching philosophies of basketball’s John Wooden and Bob Knight when he first got into coaching. “I push drills and drills and drills that work on body movement management. If you have body movement management, then you can perform pretty well.”
Straub and Klempa attend tournaments, scour YouTube videos and network with friends and alumni in search of the next great Cornhusker prospect. About 200 applicants vie each year for two or three roster spots, and anyone who counts bowling as a hobby and not a commitment is immediately discounted. The list is reduced to ten or 15 candidates who receive official visits and a chunk of the five scholarships permitted by the NCAA.
Nebraska is a bowling juggernaut.
Of the five keglers that comprised last season’s starting lineup, four were named All-American, including Julia Bond, who was honored for the fourth time. The 2017-18 Lady Huskers earned 100 match wins and won 86 percent of their games, both NCAA records. Like Alabama football and Duke basketball, the rich get richer. In November 2018, Bill Straub announced that NU had signed two talented bowlers for the 2019-20 season. Kayla Verstraete, a two-time Illinois state champion, will head to Lincoln this fall, as will Amara Smith Speights, a four-time Pepsi Championship winner out of Virginia.
Two of the Cornhuskers’ chief rivals are McKendree University and Arkansas State, both with roots at Nebraska. Bryan O’Keefe, McKendree’s Director of Bowling, helped NU to the 1996 title. Arkansas State is led by Justin Kostick, who competed for the ‘Huskers from 1999 to 2004. Last season, McKendree knocked top-seeded Nebraska out of the NCAA championship in the semifinal round.
The University of Nebraska athletic department rakes in over $100 million a year.
Roughly 60 percent comes from football and some of that money trickles down to bowling. The Lady Huskers eat meals at a training table in the athletics complex. They have access to the university’s training and medical staff as well as the strength and conditioning program. The squad works out each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m. The ladies eat breakfast together then break for classes. The team returns to the bowling alley for practice from 2 to 5 p.m., then goes to Memorial Stadium to eat. Located on the first floor of the student union of the East Campus, the varsity bowling alley is teeming with trophies and plaques, while the walls are lined with head shots of Nebraska All-Americans.
Considered a Winter Sport, the Lady Huskers’ regular season begins in October and ends in March, with matches taking place Friday through Sunday. The 2018-19 ‘Huskers traveled to tournaments in Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, Arkansas and Missouri and played one home match – the Big Red Invitational at Sun Valley Lanes in Lincoln. The squad is comprised of ten players, five of whom compete in matches. Nebraska prides itself on team unity. “People watching our events cannot tell which five are playing and which are cheering them on,” boasts Straub. “It is a very cohesive group and we are blessed.”
NCAA Women’s Bowling is made up of 78 colleges — from all divisions – that compete against one another. Following the conclusion of the regular season in March, the NCAA Women’s Bowling Committee selects ten teams for the collegiate championship. Last year, six conference teams were granted automatic qualification, with the remaining teams selected at-large. Four teams compete in opening round matches to “play-in” to the eight-team bracket. Teams are seeded, then compete in a double-elimination format, with each round consisting of a best-of-three match. A best-of-seven Baker match play format is used in the final to determine the national champion.
Nebraska concluded their 2018-19 regular season at the Big Red Invitational earlier this month, where the Huskers finished second to McKendree. This week, the NCAA will announce the field for the 2019 NCAA Championship, which will be held at RollHouse Wickliffe near Cleveland, Ohio. Play will commence on Thursday, April 11 and the final will air on ESPNU on Saturday evening, April 13.