ARLINGTON, Texas - When COVID-19 brought an abrupt timeout to the 2020 Professional Bowlers Association Tour season, Chris Via of Blacklick, Ohio, was just gaining momentum and learning to find his way among the sport's elite.
He returned to Ohio following a second consecutive TV appearance in a PBA Tour major, but any fanfare would've been overshadowed by the uncertainty of when the season would resume.
Even practicing to stay sharp wasn't possible due to initial stay-at-home orders, so further career progress would have to wait, too.
Of course, there were immediate questions about how the break would affect his momentum - questions the 29-year-old two-hander addressed with maturity and logic and then formally answered with more memorable performances when the PBA resumed a traditional schedule in January 2021.
"When we finally got back to having events, I definitely wanted to continue the momentum I found pre-COVID, but my mindset was a little more relaxed," Via said. "I missed bowling and came back with a greater appreciation for the sport and getting to do it for a living. I wanted to enjoy it more and not worry as much about every shot being perfect. I think the break ended up being a great mental reset."
The year featured more success in the majors, including a top-five finish at the United States Bowling Congress Masters and breakthrough win at the 2021 U.S. Open in April, a pair of televised perfect games (February and June) and a near-record performance on the way to the Regular All-Events title at the USBC Open Championships.
As 2022 gets going, Via is proud of his recent run, and incredibly motivated by it, but he knows how important it is to keep looking forward.
The new season will bring many more firsts, including the opportunity to defend his U.S. Open title, a task that will get underway this week at Woodland Bowl in Indianapolis.
The U.S. Open is scheduled for Jan. 30-Feb. 6 and again will include 108 of the world's best bowlers, most of whom earned their spots in the event based on recent on-lane performances.
The tournament will begin with a pre-tournament qualifier on Sunday and conclude with a live stepladder on FS1 on Feb. 6 at 5 p.m. Eastern.
When Via finally hits the lanes in Indianapolis and takes aim at becoming the first bowler since David Husted in 1996 to win the U.S. Open in consecutive years, a few things will be different.
First, fans have returned to watching top-tier events in person, so he should expect to catch up on the attention he missed when his surge into the spotlight came during a socially distanced 2020 and 2021.
The second is the potentially life-changing top prize at the 2022 event, which is more than triple what Via took home last year with his 214-213 win over left-hander Jakob Butturff of Tempe, Arizona, at the famed National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.
Via earned $30,000 for the victory, but an August 2021 announcement from USBC and the Bowling Proprietors' Association of America promised that all four major championships presented by the two organizations - U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open, USBC Queens and USBC Masters - each would pay $100,000 to their winners through 2023.
"Last year was a dream year, and all of the things I accomplished could be considered career goals," said Via, who recently earned a spot on Team USA for the fourth time. "It was one of those stretches where everything went my way, and I'm still just trying to ride that wave. It's pretty cool coming into the U.S. Open as the defending champion, but those are feelings I'll need to turn off when the lanes come on. All of the other guys will be there to win, and they don't care that I won last year."
The 70-lane Woodland Bowl has been home to many noteworthy moments, most recently in 2016 when Anthony Simonsen won the USBC Masters to become the sport's youngest major champion at age 19.
Simonsen, who was the runner-up to Australia's Jason Belmonte at the 2020 U.S. Open, is on the list of competitors expected to compete for the coveted green jacket and iconic trophy at the 2022 edition of the event.
The roster includes the leaders on the PBA Tour points list, Team USA and Junior Team members, top performers at USBC events and PBA majors and those who advance from the on-site eight-game PTQ on Sunday.
The U.S. Open format features qualifying across multiple oil patterns and round-robin match play, before the top five competitors advance to the TV stepladder, based on their 56-game pinfall totals, with bonus pins earned for each win in match play.
Each player at the 2022 U.S. Open will bowl 24 games over three days (eight games each day) on three different oil patterns, with the top 36 performers bowling eight more games on a fourth lane condition, to determine the 24 bowlers for round-robin match play.
All rounds of qualifying and match play will be broadcast live at BowlTV.com.
Via's experience in Reno in 2021 came a little later in the PBA Tour schedule and proved to be as mentally challenging as it was physically demanding.
The road to Reno started in January with a memorable run at the season-opening PBA Players Championship, where he advanced to the East Region Finals and rolled his first televised 300 in the opening match. Despite the temporary high, he was edged by Michael Davidson of Versailles, Ohio, in the next match.
"Getting out to a good start in 2021 was big because it easily could've gone the other way," Via said. "I could've blamed COVID for stopping my momentum, but the quick success proved I was still on the right track. It was frustrating starting to make shows but not being able to come away with the titles. But, when you've got the best bowlers of the week, anything can happen. I learned each time, and I knew I was doing the right things to keep putting myself in position."
By the time he slipped on the green jacket and hoisted the trophy after winning the U.S. Open as the No. 1 seed, Via already had bowled more than 100 games of practice and competition across five challenging oil patterns and two of the sport's most intense formats - all in about two weeks.
Through it all, he focused on building on the things he was learning with each TV appearance and continued to do the things that had been getting him into those positions more frequently.
As the 2021 U.S. Open rolled on, he matched up well with the diverse oil patterns, found confidence in his game plan, bowled well overall and found a way to win matches and secure the bonus pins.
Via entered the Cashers' Round in 24th place and closed with games of 279, 300 and 240 to secure his spot in match play, qualifying 16th. In the rounds that followed, he moved up to 10th, then third, before a position-round win against Butturff earned him the top seed for the show.
The long journey in 2022 will include qualifying rounds Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The Cashers' Round and start of match play will happen Friday, and the final two rounds of match play will take place Saturday.
Though Via's 2022 didn't start with the same fireworks as 2021, he's excited and optimistic after a 10th-place finish in the East Region Qualifier for the 2022 PBA Players Championship on Jan. 15-16. At the same time, the days before the U.S. Open may include some practice on spare shooting, based on that performance.
"I may not be out to the most ideal start to the year, but I feel like I grinded well and made a solid appearance," Via said. "Also, we didn't have many fans around during all of it, so the attention I'm getting now is different. There are new feelings when I walk into an event. Overall, I know I have to put 2021 behind me and focus on the new season. I've been able to stay in bowling shape. I feel confident. I just need to go out there and make good shots - and repeat them. And make spares. That's definitely something that needs to improve from the Players Championship."
The 2022 U.S. Open will be a collaborative effort between USBC and BPAA and again will be considered a major on the PBA Tour. The total prize fund for the event will exceed $260,000.
For more information about the U.S. Open, visit BOWL.com/USOpen.