For the first time in school history, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater bowling team has won a national tournament.
The Warhawks, ranked No. 9 in the nation, took first place in the New Year Knockdown hosted by St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, on Jan. 19-20.
"It was an amazing feeling," said Ashley Bell, a junior from Menomonee Falls. "To walk out of the tournament after defeating some of the top-ranked teams in the country was a big accomplishment."
UW-Whitewater won 11 out of 12 matches, finishing with a 10,957 pinfall. University of Maryland-Eastern Shore was second with 10,893 pins and Long Island University rounded out the top three with a total pinfall of 10,613.
"We had a 125-pin lead after day one, and teams were gaining on us on the second day," said Leann Eimermann, head coach. "It was pretty nerve-wracking to watch."
"The way scoring works in bowling, one bad shot can cause you to lose the entire match," Bell said. "We knew what we needed to do to keep the lead. We wanted it so bad."
One of the more notable matches was a 1,086-789 rout of Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. Tracy Fakes, a sophomore from Columbus, led UW-Whitewater with a score of 235, while all five Warhawks bowled 200-plus games.
In another match, the Warhawks defeated last year's national champion, the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, 997-950. Bell and Melissa Molbeck, a junior from Germantown, were named to the All-Tournament Team after each scoring 247 in respective games.
What makes the victory even sweeter, said Eimermann, is that UW-Whitewater competed as the only Division III program at the tournament.
"If you want to be good, you have to compete against the best teams. This win means the world to us as a program," Eimermann said. "We're playing against Division I schools, and we're beating them."
Bowling is a relatively young intercollegiate sport at UW-Whitewater - in only its 13th year - and already the Warhawks are arguably the best women's bowling team in Wisconsin.
That high caliber of play means traveling out of state to find opponents. In fact, their closest competition is 160 miles away in Valparaiso, Ind.
Eimermann said bowling athletes show a strong commitment, practicing a minimum of 14 hours a week and usually more.
The team chemistry is also deep.
"When one of us is struggling or if someone makes a mental error, we try to get them in a different mindset," said Katie Zwiefelhofer, a junior from Racine. "We're constantly high-fiving each other and doing cheers."
Last season, Zweifelhofer finished third place at the national tournament, the highest finish ever by a UW-Whitewater bowler.
She's not the only bowler with a winning resume.
Bell, who attended Menomonee Falls High School, is the 2010 Wisconsin state high school bowling champion.
Even with strong performances on the lanes, Eimermann attributes much of the team's success to team bonding.
"We share a lot of meals, and love to play board games. I couldn't ask for better teammates," Bell said. "On the way back from New York, the airplane was pretty empty. Each girl could have had her own row. We sat three by three because we wanted to talk with each other. We're all best friends."
Photos (from top) Ashley Bell; Katie Zwiefelhofer; Jessica Walter; Group photo - Dayna Mackie, Katie Kleinmaier, Michelle Wallenberg and Jessica Walter. Photos by Craig Schreiner.