A pair of victories over top-10 squads that came down to the very last shot highlighted #18 Valparaiso's undefeated day Saturday in the second day of action at the Crusader Classic at Stardust Bowl II in Merrillville.
The Crusaders sit in third place after the second day of competition, having tallied 9,416 total pins over ten matches. #5 Nebraska sits atop the standings with 9,687 pins, narrowly ahead of #6 Arkansas State, which totaled 9,678 pins through two days.
"It's still early in the season, but the girls are bowling good," said Crusader head coach Matt Nantais. "We're working through everything, the ups and downs, and we're doing a really good job bowling as a team and working together. There's times when one bowler has struggled and others have picked them up. Today, we were able to take a couple out and put two others in. Those two girls helped us out, bowling well while giving the original starters the break they needed to refocus and return the next game."
Valpo opened Saturday's competition, which was contested in the traditional five-bowler format, by posting a team score of 966 as it was unopposed in the opener. Senior Amanda Cortese (Hoffman Estates, Ill./Hoffman Estates [Central Missouri]) led the Crusaders in the first game of the day with a 235, while sophomore Kaity Galka (Dyer, Ind./Lake Central) posted a 203 in the day's opener.
The Crusaders went from bowling unopposed to facing the stiffest competition at the tournament in the form of fifth-ranked Nebraska. Entering the final frame, Valpo held a narrow lead, and the two squads seemingly traded strikes throughout the tenth frame. Cortese and senior Krystyna Johnson (Montgomery, Ill./Oswego East [Delaware State]) each posted a pair of strikes on their first two balls in the tenth, while redshirt junior Ashley Busiel (Elk Grove Village, Ill./James B. Conant [Harper College]) struck out to close out a team-high game of 238.
But as sharp as the Crusaders were in the tenth frame, Nebraska was even more accurate, and in fact the Huskers had a chance to close out Valpo and earn the victory as each squad's respective anchor bowler stepped onto the approach. But Nebraska's anchor, working off a ninth-frame strike, only downed nine pins with her first ball, opening the door for senior Natalie Cortese (Hoffman Estates, Ill./Hoffman Estates [Central Missouri]) to earn the victory for the Crusaders. Cortese needed no more help, striking out with her three shots to give Valpo the 961-957 win over Nebraska. The four-pin margin of victory was the closest in Crusader bowling history in a traditional format match.
After the dramatics of the second match of the day, Valpo got a bit of a breather in its third contest, easily earning a 959-619 victory over visiting Salem International. Natalie Cortese carried over the momentum from striking out in the previous match, rolling a Valpo season-high 247 game, the sixth-best effort in Crusader history. Johnson also helped propel the Crusaders to the win with a 224 game of her own.
Another set of dramatics awaited Valpo in the fourth contest of the day, as the Crusaders met sixth-ranked Arkansas State. Games of 208 from Johnson and 203 from junior Morgan Sharp (Homer Glen, Ill./Lockport Township), as well as a 202 from Amanda Cortese after she struck out in the tenth, helped Valpo stay in the match with the Red Wolves. Natalie Cortese stepped onto the lanes last in the tenth frame with the Crusaders trailing by 18 pins, meaning a mark and eight pins would tie the match and anything more would win it for Valpo.
The senior anchor bowler stepped up and delivered a strike on her first ball, moving Valpo within eight pins of Arkansas State with two balls remaining. But Cortese downed just seven pins with her second ball, meaning she would have to hit at least one of the 3-6-9 to tie the match and two to win it. The senior calmly rolled a perfect final shot, toppling all three remaining pins and giving the Crusaders a 951-949 win, breaking the record set just two matches prior for the closest traditional match in Valpo bowling history.
“Those were a couple of really good wins for us,” said Nantais. “Beating Nebraska the way we did, that was a pretty good feeling. Then for us to beat Arkansas State again and improve to 3-1 against them this year is impressive, since they're a top-10 team.”
The final match of the day saw the Crusaders set up against #17 UW-Whitewater in the positioning round, as the squads sat third and fourth, respectively, in the standings after nine matches. Valpo earned its fourth victory of the day by a 912-841 count, led by a 216 from Natalie Cortese and a 204 by Galka.
Natalie Cortese led Valpo in average on Saturday afternoon, posting a 201.0 average, the second time in as many tournaments this season that she has averaged better than a 200. Johnson registered the second-best average on the day with a 193.4, while Amanda Cortese recorded a 192.6 average.
Valparaiso (19-3) closes out hosting duties at the Crusader Classic on Sunday morning beginning at 8:30 a.m. The final day will feature three best-of-seven baker matches in bracket play, with the Crusaders set to face UW-Whitewater in the opener. Valpo is one of four squads which still has a chance to capture the tournament title.