Consistency brings Bearkats back to NCAA Regionals

Apr. 1—HUNTSVILLE — After an up-and-down season that resulted in an early exit from the Conference USA Tournament, Sam Houston bowling continues to march on.

The Bearkats, who finished as the sixth seed in Conference USA, battled against Youngstown State in the opening round before being sent to the contender's bracket. After the loss, Sam Houston was paired up with Stephen F. Austin in the elimination game.

In the tournament, Sam Houston knocked out the Ladyjacks to set up a rematch against Youngstown State.

Getting to the CUSA Tournament was a roller coaster. The Bearkats battled through nine tournaments starting in October starting in Tulane. Sam Houston faced its first challenge.

The Bearkats went into the last day of the tournament in third place but wrapped up the event in fifth.

"This season has been an adventure and a bit of a roller coaster this year," Sam Houston head coach Brad Hagen said. "Sometimes we've floated under the radar and other times we haven't. One of the unique frustrating things that has been this year is we are in the mix at every tournament. Out statistics, nationally, have been Top-5 or Top-10 in every category, we just weren't getting the wins. We did a lot of the right stuff but caught people at the wrong time. Statistically, we've done pretty well and compared to last year we are up nearly a percent in every category."

From there the Kats were on an upward trajectory. At its host event, Sam Houston took home second with a 4-1 win over Maryville to play in the championship. The Bearkats faced Louisiana Tech in the championship but lost the match 2-1.

Sam Houston is currently ranked as the No. 10 team, according to RPI, in the NCAA but its bid to the NCAA Tournament was kind of a surprise.

In a stack CUSA, the Bearkats were the fifth team to make the tournament. In the RPI ranking, they were the lowest in CUSA that made the tournament.

This season saw some change for the 'Kats too. Graduation caught up to the Bearkats as they said farewell to Elise Chambers and Bea Hernandez, two cornerstones of the team.

"It wasn't a negative turnover and losing the fifth-year seniors put us in a spot where we had to get some new faces in," Hagen said. "We have an old team, but we have a very young team. We took advantage of the transfer portal a little bit and we needed to harness some depth. It just takes time. Winning is hard."

But lucky for head coach Brad Hagen, Denise Blankenzee and Kaia Gray who assumed the leadership role this year. The duo tallied 2,175 pins in the CUSA Tournament to help guide the squad in a "new" conference.

"I grew into that and I am doing it more now where I don't even think about it. I just do and say what is best in the moment," Blankenzee said. "We have a lot of gatherings with the team where everybody talks because everybody has a voice. At the end of the day when a decision has to be made, somebody needs to step up and I try and do it the best way I can."

The Bearkat bowling squad, like the rest of the university, moved to Conference USA this season. With the Southland ending the sponsorship of bowling, most of the teams migrated to CUSA.

With the advancement to the NCAA Tournament, the Bearkats have secured their 12th appearance in the last 14 years. It marks the third consecutive trip to the Arlington Regional tournament.

Last season, the Bearkats dropped its opening game to LA Tech but defeated Prairie View A&M to set up a rematch with the Lady Techsters.

The Bearkats eliminated LA Tech but now the two schools match up in the regional for the fourth consecutive year.

"I think it will help. Besides us practicing here six days a week and having a home tournament in Houston every year, Arlington is the place we have the most experience," Blankenzee said. "We have a lot of experience there so it should benefit us."

Sam Houston and LA Tech will square off in the regional at 9 a.m. Friday, April 5, in Arlington.