In the 109-year history of the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships (formerly the American Bowling Congress Tournament), no one has ever had a three-year run like what Matt McNiel capped off early Sunday at the Baton Rouge River Center.
Only three bowlers have won the all-events twice, the most recent being Frank Santore in 1950 and 1953, according to USBC records. The others were Joe Wilman and Jimmy Smith.
Mike Rose Jr. won the title in 2007 with 2,198 and took the lead in 2008 with a memorable finish in singles, but ended up third at 2,161.
McNiel is nearly working on an unfathomable all-events three-peat — winning in 2010 with a record 2,326 total, finishing third last year with 2,239 on a disappointing finish in singles, and taking the lead with 2,202 this weekend.
The 26-year-old lefty's 250.6 average for those three years is surreal, especially considering that his final series was a gutty 563 in singles on a tough pair after blasting 792 in team and 847 (268-300-279) in doubles.
He also now is the only bowler with three 800 series in tournament history.
When I got up Sunday morning and checked my phone and saw McNiel’s scores, I just shook my head at the absurdity of what he had done. And I was totally curious to hear how he went from 847 in doubles to 563 in singles.
Thankfully, he had left me a message to call in the afternoon and after that conversation I understood the 847 to 563.
I was on the pair when my teammate Bret Faulkner went from 486 in doubles to 819 in singles in 1991 in Toledo, and our group in 2008 was collectively more than 600 pins better in minors on 47-48 than we were in 45-46, so I've seen what can happen.
After shooting 792 in team on 35-36, McNiel bowled doubles on 7-8 and singles on 5-6.
His minors became a bonus webcast following Brian Waliczek's team webcast on 7-8 on the 8:30 p.m. Saturday squad. (McNiel said those were his original assigned lanes, not a special move for the webcast.)
Waliczek's group on 7-8 featured two lefties, including Cory Simmons who shot 648, and McNiel said that helped the pair play very close to what their team pair played when he and Chuck Vashaw and Dave Hoppenrath broke them down at 5-6-7 boards.
“I had a really good reaction and that freed up my armswing and made me really confident,” said McNiel, who used a 900 Global FAVORITE in minors. “I just played a little more direct with a little softer hand.”
He said he had less "forgiveness" compared to the last two years, but twice turned splits on pulled shots into strikes, McNiel said.
“I got a couple of breaks on shots that had no business striking,” he said. “I had about a 3-board window.”
McNiel’s 847 carried partner and fellow lefty Vashaw, who has two Eagles, to the doubles lead with 1,489, 25 more than Roger Blanchard and Jimmy Zimmerman. But McNiel said Vashaw could have had much more, following a pair of 237 games with a 168 that featured 3-7, 6-7 and 6-7-10 splits.
Vashaw is a solid veteran player who I competed with for years in PBA Regionals. He has moderate speed and revs but is accurate and mentally solid — a quiet guy who looks the same whether he is shooting 150 or 270.
When McNiel creeped a bit in and picked up the speed in the third game as they broke down, Vashaw started going high or light as he adjusted.
“He got trapped,” McNiel said. “With another ball (for Vashaw) we might have had 1,500 and change.”
Ironically, after a team even in which Vashaw shot 700 and John Eiss a small 600 with his bad back flaring up, the team decided to switch Vashaw to double with McNiel instead of Eiss, who then shot 715 in doubles.
“It was a decision we felt very confident in making,” McNiel said of the switch.
Singles was a totally different story from doubles and a “great learning experience,” he said.
Lane 5 was two boards tighter than team event started, and 6 was hooking maybe 1 1/2 boards more than the doubles pair finished.
A pair of very good lefties, Shawn Ryan and Jeff Mersch, fell short of 600 on the pair in team earlier in the tournament, and lefty teammate Dave Hoppenrath barely shot 500 in doubles on it, McNiel said.
“That’s a doomsday pair,” he said.
In a Facebook post on Sunday night, Ryan quipped that "Lane 5 thinks about letting your ball roll in the right spot and then it comes out of the ball return."
He started with a weak 7-pin on lane 5 and then a strike on a slightly high hit, followed by a super washout and a split for a pair of opens.
“Panic was setting in,” he said. “My rhythm and routine dissolved. My heart rate went up and I was starving for air and not taking my time.”
By the time the game was over he had a 157 and the focus had moved from possibly breaking his all-events record to finding a way to take the lead, which belonged to Ryan Whitney at 2,170.
The second game was better but a missed 3-9 left him with 192, and needing 183 for the lead while trying to juggle throwing it slow and rolling it on lane 5 and hard on lane 6.
“I just told myself I’ve bowled the U.S. Open and the Masters and been able to score on shots a lot tougher than this,” McNiel said. “Take it one shot at a time and make good shots.”
He started with a strike, then left a 10-pin and spared, then doubled before leaving a 7-pin that a messenger pin missed and that McNiel then whiffed on the spare attempt for 97 in the fifth.
“I was so depleted from throwing such a good shot” for the 7-pin leave, McNiel said. “I just made up my mind that this isn’t happening. And the next three shots were the best three shots under pressure I’ve thrown in my life.”
Those three strikes were followed by a pair of 6-pin leaves that he spared for a 214 that gave him 563 and 2,202.
While proud of how he came through at the end and that he proved his Open Championships success wasn’t just about the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, “I don’t want people to think they have to absolutely be walled for me to score,” McNiel said in assessing his set.
"Last night was the best night of my career, because in 2010 I was oblivious to what I was doing and last night I had to grind it out on an ugly pair," he said. "I got to appreciate what was happening."
Anyone who thinks that obviously hasn’t paid much attention to the lane patterns or what other lefties have shot at the Open Championships the past three years. There have been good scores but none like McNiel's for three straight years.
It is impossible to overstate how awesome McNiel has been the last three years. I'd rate it the greatest accomplishment in the tournament's history. If you have a better one, hit me with it.
McNiel has 14 more years to go to become eligible for the USBC Hall of Fame — his ultimate goal — but even if he does little in those years, he already may have done enough to get elected in the Outstanding USBC Performance category.
McNiel said his “secret” is a combination of things: understanding equipment and lane patterns, a strong mental game, spare shooting, knowing what you need to do, and working together with teammates.
"And I spend hours every year preparing for this tournament physically and mentally," he said. "My one objective is to throw good shots and make my spares."
McNiel said it's "an honor and a privilege to bowl with such a group of elite bowlers" as the Linds Lakers, who he joined this season. "I'm very fortunate to have the people I do who support me."
McNiel's Lakers 1 moved into fifth in team with 3,278 and fourth in team all-events with 9,801. Sam Lantto added 2,008, John Eiss 1,935, Luke Voaklander 1,840, and USBC Hall of Famer Todd Savoy 1,816.
Lantto, Eiss and Savoy won the team all-events in 2002 and 2006, while Savoy has six Eagles overall.
S&B Pro Shop 1 leads team all-events with 9,954. Nicholas J's Pro Shop 2 of La Crosse lead team at 3,401.
"Matt brings a unique skill to our group," Lantto said in this USBC news release. "Obviously, he's had a great deal of success here at the national tournament, and that's something you can't replace. This is a tournament that means a lot to us, and bringing somebody on who has that degree of success can only improve our team and add confidence."
McNiel said he feels his leading scores have a "good, not great" chance of holding.
"The crosses are very interesting," he said. "I think if anybody takes me down (in all-events) it will be a righty. No score is ever a lock out here. I feel good but there are so many good teams still to come.”
McNiel said what he has done hasn't really sunk in yet.
"I think I will have a better perspective when the tournament is over," he said.
USBC OPEN CHAMPIONSHIPS
Baton Rouge River Center, Baton Rouge, La.
(Top 10 division leaders with hometown and pinfall as of April 29)
1, Nicholas J's Pro Shop 2 (Nick Heilman, Matt Mysliwiec, Greg Pizl, Trevor Yonan, Andy Mills), La Crosse, Wis., 3,401. 2, CareerAthletes.com, Wichita, Kan., 3,344. 3, Cambridge 1, Arlington, Texas, 3,319. 4, Artistic Expressions 1, Oklahoma City, 3,316. 5, Linds Lakers 1, Minneapolis, 3,278. 6, S & B Pro Shop 1, Clinton Township, Mich., 3,277. 7, The Locker Guy 1, Mankato, N.D., 3,247. 8, Clone Huskers, Madison, Wis., 3,244. 9, Frans Pro Shop 1, Waterloo, Iowa, 3,239. 10, ND Storm 1, Mandan, N.D., 3,227.
1, Matt McNiel, Prior Lake, Minn./Charles Vashaw, Deephaven, Minn., 1,489. 2, Roger Blanchard/Jimmy Zimmerman, Syracuse, N.Y., 1,464. 3, Thomas Corbett, Minneapolis/Gary Green, Houlton, Wis., 1,439. 4, Hugh Miller, Mercer Island, Wash./Adam Barta, Girard, Ohio, 1,429. 5, Chris Hans, Rocky Mount, N.C./Ryan Whitney, Lewisville, Texas, 1,420. 6, Dan Bock, Albert Lea, Minn./Chad Nelson, Owatonna, Minn., 1,419. 7, Paul Marmolejo, Rialto, Calif./Alex Marmolejo, Alta Loma, Calif., 1,398. 8(tie), Steven Zimmer, Louisville, Ky./T.J. Schmidt, Osceola, Ind., and Mike Lewellen, Gering, Neb./Garrett Maxey, Greeley, Colo., 1,397. 10, Nick Wissinger, Clinton Township, Mich./Dave Ewald, Macomb, Mich., 1,389.
1, Henry Teetz III, West Allis, Wis., 800. 2(tie), Andrew Kleutgen, Wild Rose, Wis., and Dustin Knipp, Mansfield, Ohio, 785. 4, Ryan Whitney, Lewisville, Texas, 773. 5, John Ferretti, Erie, Pa., 771. 6, Robert Hanson, Tacoma, Wash., 765. 7, Camden Rokita, Springfield, Ill., 763. 8, Matt Smith, Altoona, Iowa, 756. 9, Vayle Floria, Cerritos, Calif., 755. 10(tie), Robert Hackleman, Evansville, Wyo., and Robert Baldwin, State College, Pa., 751.
1, Matt McNiel, Prior Lake, Minn., 2,202. 2, Ryan Whitney, Lewisville, Texas, 2,170. 3, Derek Eoff, Madison, Wis., 2,167. 4, Nick Wissinger, Clinton Township, Mich., 2,152. 5, Nick Heilman, La Crosse, Wis., 2,121. 6, Terry Syring, Bay City, Mich., 2,087. 7, Shawn Lee, Centennial, Colo., 2,082. 8, Camden Rokita, Springfield, Ill., 2,080. 9, Steven Zimmer, Lousiville, Ky., 2,079. 10, Michael Tucker, Las Vegas, 2,078.
1, S&B Pro Shop 1 (Bill Orlikowski, Nick Wissinger, Mark Moore, Kerry Kreft, Dave Ewald), Clinton Township, Mich., 9,954. 2, The Locker Guy 1, Mankato, Minn., 9,925. 3, Cambridge 1, Arlington, Texas, 9,817. 4, Linds Lakers 1, Minneapolis, 9,801. 5, Fran's Pro Shop 1, Waterloo, Iowa, 9,795, 6, Clone Huskers, Madison, Wis., 9,770. 7, Lodge Lanes Too, Orlando, Fla., 9,744. 8, Five Horsemen, Racine, Wis., 9,731. 9, Legend of Dung Ho, Cerritos, Calif., 9,666. 10, Nicholas J's Pro Shop 2, La Crosse, Wis., 9,632.
1, Nite Owls (David Dean, Winston Ware, Leon Clark, Michael Hicks, John Sperry), Madison Heights, Va., 2,707. 2, Frazee 2, Vergas, Minn., 2,678. 3, Garden Center Lanes 4, Alexandria, Minn., 2,670. 4, K Lines 2, Gildford, Mont., 2,658. 5, Lani Ohana, Honolulu, 2,650. 6, Schmidt Motors, Ogallala, Neb., 2,639. 7, Donnas Lounge 2, Sheffield, Iowa, 2,631. 8, Bluedog Blazers, Webster, S.D., 2,614. 9, Paradise Lanes, Walden, Colo., 2,607. 10, Garden Center Lanes 3, Alexandria, Minn., 2,604.
1, Randy Tennant, Onida, S.D./Tim Luken, Gettysburg, S.D., 1,231. 2, Daniel Broussard, Broussard, La./Rob Clark, Rayne, La., 1,196. 3, Lenny Boogaard, Osakis, Minn./Larry Sorenson, West Union, Minn., 1,187. 4, Kathy Barthel, Jacksonville, Ala./Thomas Gaskins, Bessemer, Ala., 1,184. 5, Jewell Ownbey/Forrest Ownbey, Newport, Wash., 1,182. 6, Don Driver, Howard, Colo./Dave Culp, Salida, Colo., 1,180. 7, Jeremy Skelenar/Bobby Turner, Kearney, Neb., 1,177. 8, Eric Douglass, Goldfield, Iowa/Dale Helgevold, Osceola, Iowa, 1,170. 9, Paul Reker, New Ulm, Minn./Norman Skarphol, Madelia, Minn., 1,163. 10, Kristine Kreuser, Wayne, Ill./Keith White, Gurnee, Ill, 1,153.
1, Joel Fee, Pella, Iowa, 655. 2, Dennis Hanson, Harbor Beach, Mich., 640. 3, Rick Richter, Primghar, Iowa, 634. 4, Travis Simplot, Oregon, Wis., 622. 5, Ken Brewster, Goshen, Ind., 621. 6(tie), Randy Witters, New Weston, Ohio, and Mark Herring, Seymour, Mo., 619. 8, Gordon Tunison, New York, 614. 9, Dustin Space, Minden, Neb., 613. 10, Sheldon Goldberg, Hollywood, Fla., 607.
1, Dennis Poepping, Alexandria, Minn., 1,746. 2, Paul Schrubbe, Horicon, Wis., 1,742. 3, Sheldon Goldberg, Hollywood, Fla., 1,739. 4, Terry Turner, Shoreline, Wash., 1699. 5, William Rowald, Roscoe, Ill., 1,698. 6, Darwin Noah, Sidney, Mich., 1,693. 7, Randy Witters, New Weston, Ohio, 1,688. 8, Daniel Broussard, Broussard, La., 1,684. 9, Roger Munson, Belmond, Iowa, 1683. 10, Mike Raburn, Cleveland, Tenn., 1,676.