CALI, Colombia - Puerto Rico's Cristian Azcona and Israel Hernandez found a way to strike on the challenging oil pattern at the 2021 PANAM Bowling Elite Championships, and they came away with the gold and silver medals Sunday in the tournament-opening singles event.
The historic performance at the 20-lane Bolera Departamental marked Puerto Rico's first singles gold medal at the PANAM Elite Championships, which added the discipline to the roster of events for the first time in 1981.
The Puerto Rican men went on to win a bronze medal in singles in 1997, and the women claimed silver and bronze medals in 1985 and 1989, respectively.
Azcona and Hernandez both started Sunday's six-game block in the 220s, and games of 246 and 245 along the way helped Azcona separate himself from the field heading into the final game.
Though he finished with 192, the 27-year-old right-hander had more than enough cushion to secure the victory with a 1,291 six-game total, a 215.17 average.
Hernandez was able to throw a strike on the first shot of his last frame for enough momentum to remain in second place, though a six-count on his second offering made the homestretch a little more interesting.
He finished with a 1,247 total, which ended up being one pin better than Colombia's Oscar Rodriguez, who opened in his final frame and finished with 1,246.
"We knew coming in this was going to be a hard pattern and a tough tournament, and to win what we thought is the first singles gold medal for Puerto Rico feels really, really good," Azcona said. "It's a great start to what we know will be a long week, and we hope to continue to find success in the other events."
Azcona and Hernandez have proven to have great chemistry on the lanes and at the Elite Championships, where they claimed the doubles gold medal at the 2015 event on their home turf in Puerto Rico.
Azcona has made history for Puerto Rico before.
His victory at the Professional Bowlers Association Xtra Frame Wilmington Open in 2018 made him the first bowler from there to win a PBA Tour title. His recent bid to become the first to win a PBA Tour major ended with a fourth-place finish at the 2021 U.S. Open.
At the Elite Championships, he previously collected seven medals, including two silvers and a bronze medal in Peru in 2019. The doubles win with Hernandez was his lone gold medal at the event, which features competitors from North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.
The women's singles medal went to Canada's Felicia Wong on Saturday, and the rest of the week will include doubles, trios and team competition. All-events medals also will be handed out to the top performers over the 24 games.
"We're still wearing masks and following protocols, but it actually feels really good to be able to compete and have everyone from the entire American Zone here," Azcona said. "It's awesome to have this level of competition again."
Canada's Francois Lavoie, the defending singles champion this week, finished fifth with a 1,216 total.
For the first time since 1989, the Team USA men did not medal in singles at the Elite Championships. The last time the women did not earn a singles medal was 1993.
Matt Russo, who bowled his six games Saturday night, was the high finisher for the United States, landing in sixth place with a 1,214 total.
Kyle Sherman finished 10th with 1,198, Kristopher Prather was 18th with 1,174, Andrew Anderson and Nick Pate tied for 19th place with 1,172 and newcomer Cameron Crowe was 52nd with 1,090. The men's singles field included 84 bowlers.
Though Team USA did not reach the podium in either classification, head coach Bryan O'Keefe and the players tried to collect as much information as they could about the venue, lanes, lane condition (38-foot Los Angeles), traffic patterns and equipment options based on what they saw during practice and the week's first six games.
"We experienced many of the typical bowling-related challenges, including a few missed spares that came early and left us fighting an uphill battle, not finishing games, flipping ends of the center, seeing differences pair to pair, the transition of the pattern based on who we're following - all the traditional things," O'Keefe said. "Now, we need to use the things we learned to make quicker decisions and be more aware of the little things that will help us minimize mistakes. We also need to take advantage when we have opportunities."
A full day of doubles competition Monday will reveal this year's medalists. Doubles got underway Sunday night with a squad that included women and men.
Team USA's Julia Bond and Bryanna Coté set the bar with a 2,380 six-game total and were followed by Mexico's Aseret Zetter and Sandra Gongora (2,290) and Puerto Rico's Kristie Lopez and Estefania Cobo (2,217).
Team USA's Gazmine Mason and Sydney Brummett also competed on the first squad and finished ninth with 2,032.
On the men's side, Mexico's Sergio Barajas and Jesus Lecona used a 458 final game to pace the field with a 2,470 total. They were followed by Team USA's Anderson and Prather (2,365) and Colombia's Juan Rodriguez and Felipe Gil (2,319).
The remaining duos for Team USA are Breanna Clemmer and Lauren Pate, Matt Russo and Cameron Crowe, and Nick Pate and Kyle Sherman.
"Our players this week have a mix of experience with Team USA, and especially with the newer ones, I'd expect there to be some nerves," O'Keefe said. "Anytime you put USA on your back, there probably will be nerves, but I think everyone is handling their emotions very well so far. We'll focus on executing what we're trying to accomplish, and whatever the ball does after that is what it is. If we can do that and manage our reaction to whatever happens, I think we'll be OK in the long run here."
The Team USA men (AJ Johnson and Sean Wilcox) won doubles at the 2019 PANAM Bowling Men's Championships with a record 3,062 total, and the Team USA women swept the doubles medals at the 2018 PANAM Bowling Women's Championships.
For two men and two women from each country this week, their scores also are being used toward the 2021 edition of the Champion of Champions event, traditionally a standalone tournament.
The top four countries, based on the combined 24-game pinfall totals in each gender classification, plus the United States, will qualify for the 2022 World Games. Because that event is being held in Birmingham, Alabama, the United States gets an automatic spot as the host nation.
The Team USA representatives for the Champion of Champions event are Anderson, Russo, Bond and Coté.
Additionally, total pinfall for all six bowlers in Elite Championships competition, in their respective gender classifications, will determine the four men's countries and four women's countries that will head to the 2022 International Bowling Federation World Cup.
The World Cup previously featured one man and one woman from each country, but a change to the format will allow more competitors to become part of a tradition that spans more than five decades.
To see the complete standings, visit PANAMBowling.com.
For more information on Team USA, visit BOWL.com/TeamUSA.