BY JOE JACQUEZ
Reno, NV. - When you are a PWBA Tour rookie, and two-time major champion Diana Zavjalova asks you to show her how to strike as much as you do and tells you that you are a joy to watch, you know you're doing something right.
Stephanie Zavala has been doing something right all season, and her unbelievable rookie campaign on the PWBA Tour continued on Tuesday night.
The Downey, California, native won her third career title at the PWBA Reno Classic as the No. 2 seed, dispatching no. 1 seed Bryanna Coté, 207-194.
Zavala became only the second player to win three titles in her rookie campaign, joining Leanne Hulsenberg, who accomplished that feat in 1987. She certainly has taken the tour by storm and put the rest of the players on notice with her performances, and her fellow competitors, including Zavjalova, have certainly taken notice.
"They all congratulate me and give me hugs," Zavala said. "They are all super encouraging."
PWBA Tour rep Matt McNiel said it's incredibly impressive to see what Zavala's done.
"The hardest part of bowling on tour is handling it mentally, and she is a fearless player," he said. "She is not afraid to take chances, give it everything she has.
She just goes out and plays her game and when it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but when it works, boy does it work," McNiel said.
Support and Recognition from her Peers
There have been multiple occasions that Zavala remembers being down and one of her competitors will pick her up with encouraging words. Shannon O'Keefe did this for her in Nashville when she was around the bubble to make match play.
O'Keefe, the two-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year, was on the same pair as Zavala and when she pulled it out and made match play, O'Keefe was right there.
"She was like, ‘Champions fight, champions do that,'" Zavala said.
As far as what Zavjalova told her, it meant the world to Zavala.
"Hearing someone of that caliber say that to me, it's amazing," Zavala said. "Talent respects talent, and I respect all the girls out here."
Zavala has been watching her fellow pros on TV for many years, but she said it's different watching them versus competing against them.
"Being a rookie out here, not knowing many faces, having not made many connections with very many people, it's just very nice to feel welcome.
"That's all I can ask for," Zavala said. "I feel like I am a part of the tour, not just bowling the tour."
Doing What Other Women Can't do with a Bowling Ball
Zavala's coach and ball driller, Chris Porter, who has been there in-person watching all of her shots and giving feedback and encouraging words of support this season, has heard many players talk about her and, more often than not, he said it's about one thing in particular.
"Just that she does stuff with the ball that they haven't seen other women do," Porter said.
Many players on tour can stand farther left and open up the lane, and Zavala isn't the only one with a higher than average rev rate for a female bowler on tour. That distinction belongs to Daria Pajak.
But nobody can manipulate the ball the way she does. Nobody can wheel it as hard as she does while covering so many boards playing farther left.
"She throws it like a guy," Porter said. "As weird as that is to say, she does. There's a couple of girls out on tour that really get on it, but once she came in, they've been looking at her to see what she's doing."
Zavala said Porter means everything to her.
"I don't say it enough, but I'm really grateful to have him here with me," she said. "He watches every shot, which is a lot, these days are long, but having that second set of eyes, he sometimes sees things that I don't see."
Zavala said he's the one that keeps her level-headed, gives her technical advice, and helps her develop a strategy or when to make a move.
"I trust him with my game completely," she said.
Zavala met Porter while the two were working at the same pro shop in Downey, The Professional Approach.
"We started bowling together, but he drills all my stuff, he takes care of all my stuff and he's watched me bowl so often," Zavala said.
Porter said it's hard to believe Zavala has won three titles, but he said it's great to be able to be there to see it in person after not being there in person to watch her win her first title.
As far as what Porter says to Zavala before and after shots, it’s a combination of encouragement, technical advice and motivation. During the first few tournaments, however, when spectators weren't allowed and he was watching at home, Zavala and Porter came up with a mantra: “Hit, smack, post.”
"That's just her whole process," Porter said. "Really hitting on the ball, the smack is so that she follows through and smack her back and the post is posting her shot, really staying through the ball.
"That became our little saying, and then also just to breathe before every shot," he said.
Game Recognizes Game
PWBA Hall of Famer Kelly Kulick, who finished fourth after losing to Stefanie Johnson in the opening match, was pretty candid about what she has seen from Zavala.
Kulick told Bowl.TV during her post-match interview that Zavala sometimes makes it look like league out on the lanes because of how much she strikes.
When one of the best bowlers of all-time, male or female, says that about you, that's all the evidence the bowling world needs to know how transcendent of a season Zavala has had.
A 'Funky Combination'
When describing what she can do with a bowling ball in her hand, Zavala said it's a number of things put together.
"It's a funky combination of my speed and rev rate, and my wrist kind of snaps around it a bit," she said.
To put it simply, Zavala has never had a soft touch at the bottom of the swing. She has always wheeled the ball and covered a lot of boards. It has always been her A-game and she was able to do that during the semifinal and final match in route to her win.
"My dad always told me to put more fingers in the ball, and that is just what I grew up doing," Zavala said.
But the power that Zavala has can only be effective on the hardest lane conditions and against the best bowlers in the world if she also has control and accuracy.
Enter Zavala's college coach at Sam Houston State, Brad Hagen.
"He kind of helped me control it and now I'm able to wheel on it and it works," Zavala said.
Zavala said that her unique ability to manipulate the ball, play in her spot of the lane even when nobody else is and create her own transition is an advantage, she also prides herself in not being one-dimensional.
"I do take a little bit of pride in knowing that the three events I've won have been in different areas of the lane, so I know I'm not just a one-trick pony," Zavala said
Who's the Best Bowler on Tour Right Now?
When she officially beat Coté in the championship match, needing six pins on the first ball in the 10th frame and getting nine, she picked up the trophy and immediately felt a rush of pure joy. At the same time, she had to ask herself if this was real life, waiting for someone to pinch her.
"My feet honestly haven't hit the ground yet," Zavala said. "I've always believed that I could do it, but it's a little different actually doing it and living it, but it's just a huge confidence boost and it means everything. I've worked so hard for this and I'm so happy."
Zavala didn't include her name in the discussion for the best bowler on tour is. She mentioned Shannon O'Keefe, Danielle McEwan and Verity Crawley. But the bowling world, including fans of the PWBA, knows that she is one of, if not the, best player on tour.
Porter said she's one of the top three bowlers right now, and while he said it's a biased opinion, it's also the reality. Zavala has won more titles than any player with two more tournaments to go, she will win Rookie of the Year, and now has a mathematical chance to win Player of the Year.
Zavala came into Reno ninth in the Player of the Year points race, largely due to her absence at the Kickoff Classic in January and a number of low finishes between wins. But she's only about 17,000 points back of leader Dasha Kovalova and 25,000 points will be awarded to the winner of the PWBA Tour Championship.
"I never thought that my name would ever be in that mix. I am a little bit of an outside shot, but that is OK. All I can control is how I bowl," Zavala said.
A Night-and-Day Difference
Kulick, Johnson and Coté all said that the TV show pair played differently than the lanes they bowled on all tournament. The middles and the backend hooked more, and that forced a lot of players further left than where they started.
Zavala had the same experience.
"Even the warmup pair played differently than what we were doing for the competition pair," Zavala said.
Zavala through urethane from seven to four to create a little more carry down, giving her the best chance at success.
"I know that when I jump left, I need that little help to keep my ball from checking early," Zavala said. "I'm glad my strategy paid off. That was a high-risk, high-reward type of move, but I have trust in my ability to get left and repeat shots."
Zavala struck six of her first seven shots in route to a 233-194 win over Johnson. In the championship match against Coté, she opened in the second but then struck the next five shots, which included a Brooklyn strike in the seventh.
At that point with Cote fighting bad ball reaction, Zavala knew she just had to stay clean. But, she stepped up in the eighth and left a 2-4-8-10. To say she was frustrated would be an understatement.
However, she rebounded and threw a flush strike in the ninth, easily her best shot of the match in route to the win.
"It sucks," Zavala said. "You never want to feel like you just gave something away. I was upset, but I came right back at it the next frame and threw one of the best shots of the match."
Coté said she struggled with ball reaction and finishing runner-up hurts, but everything happens for a reason. Kulick said her match came down to not seeing the picture clear enough because the lanes played so different.
As for Johnson, despite not making it to the championship match, she was really happy with her third-place finish and after a really hard year, especially coming off of a heartbreaking end to the U.S. Women’s Open, she said it felt amazing to make the show.
Zavala Says Her Latin Roots are a Blessing and a Curse
One of Zavala's biggest keys this season has been her ability to stay even-keeled, not get too high or too low after shots, but she had to learn how to do that the hard way and sometimes her emotions will get the best of her like they did late in the championship match.
"I am a Latin woman, so my attitude and my energy flip flops like a yo-yo sometimes," she joked. "But having gone through that and seeing how much of an up-and-down roller coaster that it was, it's been nice to know I can dial it back and just trust myself."
Zavala said that her ability to keep her emotions in check has gotten better with age and experience, but having side conversations about anything but bowling during competition has been huge.
"I like to keep myself positively distracted," Zavala said. "If I am thinking too hard about what I'm doing, it's probably not going well."
Zavala said she will joke with Chris or Julia Bond about things like Talladega Nights to prevent her swing from getting too tight.
One thing is clear. Whatever Zavala is doing, it is working.