ROCHESTER, N.Y. - Shannon O'Keefe of O'Fallon, Illinois, has been on a tear this season, and her torrid pace continued this week as she earned the top seed for the televised finals of the 2016 Professional Women's Bowling Association Rochester Open at AMF Gates Lanes.
O'Keefe, who led qualifying on Friday, only won two matches during match play Saturday, but she'd built enough of a lead to hold off the field and earn the top spot for the stepladder finals, which will be taped Aug. 7 during the U.S. Women's Open and air Tuesday, Aug. 23, on CBS Sports Network.
O'Keefe, originally from Oregon, was a Rochester resident for several years, along with her husband, Bryan, who is a native of the Flour City. She averaged more than 226 through 24 games in front of her friends and family and finished 56 pins ahead of left-hander Shannon Pluhowsky of Dayton, Ohio, to lead Group A after six games of round-robin match play.
Clara Guerrero of Pflugerville, Texas, who recently picked up her first PWBA title, topped the Group B standings to earn the No. 2 spot on the TV show.
Team USA member Josie Earnest of Nashville, Tennessee, and United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Carolyn Dorin-Ballard of Keller, Texas, each won their respective group stepladders to earn the third and fourth seeds for the finals.
This week's event brought about a different experience for O'Keefe, who had the chance to share her success with many familiar and supportive faces in a city she called home for nearly a decade.
"It was home for eight and a half years, and some of my best friends still live here, so it still is home," O'Keefe said. "Once I knew I'd locked up the top seed, it was very emotional for me. It hit me out of nowhere. I picked up my ball to throw my fill shot, and I had to keep blinking because my eyes were so teared up. I had to take a couple deep breaths just so when I turned around, people didn't see I was crying. I guess it meant more to me to be able to come here and do it here with all of our friends and family than I was expecting it to. It was very cool."
The PWBA Tour returned to Rochester this week for the first time since 1987, and the local bowling community was excited to have the best women in the world back in town.
O'Keefe, who is a three-time Rochester Queens champion, recalls how warmly the local bowling community treated her upon arriving.
"When I moved here, I was really young," said O'Keefe, who is a two-time PWBA champion. "Bryan grew up here, but I was jumping into a whole new bowling community. The people here embraced me as if they'd always known me and loved me from Day 1. I still keep in touch with several of them. It's just an awesome, very supportive bowling community. It's good to see after 28 years of the tour not being here, everyone still come out and support it the way they did back in the day."
While O'Keefe now is the player to beat in the stepladder, she can't help but note the role Dorin-Ballard has served as a mentor and friend and what it would mean to face one of the sport's most decorated players for the title.
"I think it will be an absolute honor to be able to bowl in a PWBA-televised event against somebody I grew up watching," O'Keefe said. "She's a legend. She's somebody I've dreamed about having a career like. She's become a dear friend of mine. So, to be able to have an opportunity to bowl her for the title would be a dream."
Dorin-Ballard has been working hard to get back to a competitive level she's comfortable with. Although she might not be happy with the overall results so far, she's already made more match play appearances this season (five), than all of 2015.
"Last year, I just didn't feel like I bowled well at all, and it was mediocre at best," Dorin-Ballard said. "I feel like this year has been mediocre for me, too, though. I've had some pretty good opportunities, and I haven't taken advantage. I've worked on my game every single week, and, actually, after not bowling last week, I went home, and our friend Paul Fleming and my husband came up with an idea. I went and changed my thumb pitch a little bit, so I'm using new Switch Grips with the new pitch. I've also worked with Del and Randy at Kegel very often this season, so it's a work in progress. I'm a work in progress."
Dorin-Ballard won her last PWBA title at the Greater Cincinnati Open in 2003 before the Tour went on hiatus. She is appreciative of the career she's had and looks forward to building on her successes this season.
"There's so much talent out here, and the game is so different," said Dorin-Ballard, who will turn 52 on July 29. "Do I think I can still compete? Absolutely, 100 percent, or I wouldn't be here, and I wouldn't work at it. But, it is tougher. I'm older. I hate to admit that, but I am. So, I want to try to take advantage of the moments I have. This right here is a goal met. The TV show is a totally different thing, and you know what, I'm in a different place now. I want to win, but if I don't, I've done some really great things, and I want to keep building on that."
In the opening match of the Group A stepladder Saturday, Dorin-Ballard defeated Jennifer Higgins of Westerville, Ohio, 259-172. In the finale, Dorin-Ballard knocked off Pluhowsky, 225-210.
Pluhowsky stepped up in the 10th frame with an opportunity to shut out Dorin-Ballard but left a 7 pin on her first offering. Dorin-Ballard, a five-time Team USA member, then needed a strike and good count to clinch the victory. She struck out in the 10th frame to advance.
Earnest defeated two-time PWBA champion, Danielle McEwan of Stony Point, New York, in the opening game of the Group B stepladder, 268-206.
In the final match, Earnest defeated Liz Johnson of Cheektowaga, N.Y., 245-238.
Earnest jumped out to an early lead but found herself trailing by four pins in the sixth frame. In the final stanza, Earnest struck out to force Johnson to strike on the first shot of her final frame to win. Johnson left a 4 pin, allowing Earnest to advance.
Earnest and Dorin-Ballard will kick off the TV finals, with the winner advancing to meet Guerrero, who won the recent Go Bowling PWBA Players Championships in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The winner of that match will take on O'Keefe for the title.
Saturday's competition kicked off with a six-game block that narrowed the field from the 32 cashers to the top 12 players for round-robin match play. The 12 finalists were split into two groups of six for match play, which consisted of six games including a final position round. The competitor with the highest pinfall total in each group earned a spot in the TV finals, and the next three highest in each group advanced to the group stepladder.
Go to PWBA.com for more information about the PWBA Tour. Qualifying and match-play rounds of PWBA Tour events are broadcast on Xtra Frame, the exclusive online bowling channel for the Professional Bowlers Association.