BY EMIL WILLIAMS JR.
ROCKFORD, Ill. - When the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour returned to The Cherry Bowl this week, the expectation for a special performance came along with it.
Stefanie Johnson of McKinney, Texas, had no problem providing the highlights while etching her name into the history book Sunday when she defeated Liz Kuhlkin of Schenectady, New York, 228-203, to run the stepladder and win the PWBA Rockford Open.
The 38-year-old right-hander notched her fourth career PWBA Tour victory and claimed the $20,000 top prize. The stepladder was broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.
In the title match, Johnson began with an early double, but she threw a split in the third frame to give Kuhlkin her first lead, after she began the match with a strike and three consecutive spares.
Johnson reclaimed the lead after tossing five consecutive strikes, starting in the fourth frame. Kuhlkin kept things close by remaining clean, adding a double in the sixth and seventh frames. Kuhlkin rolled a key strike in the ninth, which put some pressure on Johnson prior to her ninth frame.
After a spare in the ninth, Johnson needed two strikes in the 10th to win the title, and she delivered when it mattered most on the 39-foot oil pattern. In the final game of Saturday's Round of 12, Johnson needed marks in the ninth and 10th frames to secure her spot in the finals and delivered then, too.
"During the entire stepladder, my thought process never changed," said Johnson, who won her first title since 2018. "I knew I just had to commit to making a good shot and let the universe work how it works. My opponents bowled well, and I just needed to bowl better than them, and that's really the only thing I had control over. I made a couple bad shots and talked to the reps, and we just tried to stay ahead of the transition anyway. I think ultimately that's kind of what got me into the winner's circle."
Johnson, like many others, was directly impacted by the PWBA's absence following the 2003 season. She was a collegiate standout at Central Florida, but unfortunately was unable to showcase her talent at the professional level.
Although the wait was longer than expected, Johnson finally got the chance to compete as a professional at The Cherry Bowl after an appearance as a collegiate player in 2006, helping Central Florida to a runner-up finish at the Intercollegiate Team Championships. The ties to the center run deep as her collegiate coach, United States Bowling Congress and PWBA Hall of Famer Pat Costello, won the 1980 U.S. Women's Open at The Cherry Bowl, too.
USBC and PWBA Hall of Famer John Sommer, who ran the tour from 1981-2003, presented the trophy to Johnson in an emotional moment.
"I have chills when you asked me that because if it wasn't for him, you know I may not even be here talking to you," said Johnson, who had one open frame in 40 opportunities Sunday. "I understand the history. I know where the tour has been, and I'm just forever grateful to be able to come here and win in the home where my collegiate coach won the U.S. Women's Open. That's pretty cool."
Johnson entered the week with a different appreciation of the tour and the opportunity to compete. She knew she had history with the center, which allowed her to be herself. But, it was her late father, Frank, who may have played the biggest role of all this week.
"I had a moment of channeling my dad," Johnson said. "I saw something on Facebook that just triggered me, and I just really felt like he was with me all week. It's been four years since I've been in the winner's circle, and I really attest that to him. Our friendship anniversary popped up on Friday morning. I think of him all the time, but that really triggered me."
In the semifinal match, Johnson defeated Breanna Clemmer of Clover, South Carolina, 226-200. Johnson used three consecutive strikes in the middle of the game to propel her to victory over the second-year player. Clemmer was looking for her first PWBA Tour title and now has three third-place finishes in two seasons.
Johnson advanced to the semifinal after dispatching Kelly Kulick of Union, New Jersey, 223-177. Kulick opened the match strong but ran into trouble on the left lane, which resulted in consecutive open frames. That was more than enough for Johnson, who remained clean throughout the game to win going away.
The opening match saw Johnson defeat her best friend, Shannon O'Keefe of Belleville, Illinois, 243-220. Johnson came out the gates rolling with strikes in three of the first four frames, while O'Keefe rattled off five consecutive spares. O'Keefe followed with four consecutive strikes of her own and had a chance to put some pressure on Johnson, but she was unable to strike in the 10th frame.
The 80-player field in Rockford bowled 12 games Friday, before the first cut to the top 27 athletes. Advancers bowled an additional six-game block Saturday morning, with the top 12 competing in a final six-game round to determine the five bowlers for the stepladder, based on 24-game pinfall totals.
The 2022 PWBA Tour season now will head to Stardust Bowl in Addison, Illinois, for the USBC Queens, the first major championship of the year.
The USBC Queens will take place May 18-24, with the winner taking home $60,000 and the tiara.
The stepladder finals of the USBC Queens will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network on May 24 at 7 p.m. Eastern. All rounds leading up to the finals will be broadcast on BowlTV.
Julia Bond of Aurora, Illinois, will enter the event as the defending champion after claiming her first major title in 2021 at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.
Sunday also saw the running of the PWBA Rockford Regional, which was won by top seed Jodi Woessner of Oregon, Ohio. Woessner defeated Elise Bolton of Merritt Island, Florida, in the title match, 200-177.
Woessner, who won the USBC Senior Queens in March, continued her great start to the year. She never misses an opportunity to compete and is seeing her training pay off.
"It really is starting to solidify my year," Woessner said. "I won the Senior Queens, and then I came here and bowled well Friday, but I didn't score well. I came in today with a lot of confidence and turned it into a win. So, it's great going into next week and going into the rest of the year. I feel like it really validates the work that I put in. I'm 52 years old and can still strike a little bit, so that makes me feel good, too."
Bolton advanced to the title match after defeating Kayla Crawford of Silvis, Illinois, 209-174. In the opening match, Bolton took care of Estefania Cobo of Fort Worth, Texas, 199-182.
The 40-player regional field bowled eight games of qualifying, with the top four players advancing to the stepladder finals. The finals were streamed live at BowlTV.com.