BY JOE JACQUEZ
Reno, NV. – On any other day on the PWBA Tour, a bowler who started match play in a major-title event several hundred pins out of the show would have been entirely justified in assuming that a check, not a trophy, was the best she could hope for.
But the final round of match play in the 2021 PWBA Tour Championship was unlike any other day. After what PWBA Tour rookie sensation Stephanie Zavala did during the event’s final eight games at the National Bowling Stadium, in fact, it was a day that will go down in history.
Zavala shot 96 in her first of 24 match play games to decide the top five for the season's final major. The Downey, California, native found herself stumbling out of the gate at -104 and promptly went for a walk to try to process what had just transpired.
It didn’t work. She still has no idea how she bowled 96. The only thing she does know is something didn't quite feel right physically.
"I've gotten about 35 messages asking about what the heck happened, and I've answered zero of them," Zavala said. "I don't have an answer for anybody. I don't know what happened."
Some of those who sent messages asked if Zavala was injured.
Nope. Not injured.
"The only thing injured is a little bit of my pride," Zavala laughed.
But she did something the next game that, in retrospect, reveals itself to be a foreshadowing of the miracle to come. She shot 265 and won her match — a 295 with the 30 bonus pins for the victory, and a 99-pin swing between games 1 and 2.
Entering the final round of match play Saturday, Zavala was 338 pins off the show and in 20th place at the start. Over the ensuing eight games, she averaged 251.6, including an 821 opening series, to move from 20th out of 24 bowlers to the No. 4 seed for the TV show, her second of the week after winning the Reno Classic on Tuesday for her third title of 2021, and her second major telecast appearance in this, her rookie season.
There is no other way to put it: Zavala’s performance easily amounted to one of the biggest comebacks, and one of the greatest eight-game blocks, in PWBA Tour history.
Zavala knows how improbable the accomplished was.
"It's very difficult to put this into words, I am not going to lie," she said.
Knowing where she was in the standings, Zavala's goal was to just have fun, because she did not have any fun after her start Friday despite rebounding the very next game.
"As silly and as childish as that sounds, I wanted to feel confident in my game, and I wanted to leave feeling my absolute best.”
Zavala decided she was going to be like a baseball team that enters the final week of the season in last place in its division and gets to face a team that needs to win to get in.
"Why not just go out there and play spoiler for fun while you can?" Zavala said. "See how many places you can move up."
Oh, did she move up.
Zavala felt she was playing with house money and, in fact, “house money” became her mantra. It seemed outlandish even to Zavala that she could pull off the comeback, but she said that with each game she bowled, she felt like she was getting closer and closer and that's all she could ask for.
Zavala has won Rookie of the Year. She has three titles as a rookie. Sunday will mark her sixth telecast of the season and back-to-back major telecasts, as she put in a fourth-place showing in the U.S. Women’s Open in August.
But for Zavala, this accomplishment has trumped everything else.
"This is the first time where I let go, I let go of control," Zavala said. "I let go of feeling tense and feeling hard on myself, and I just went out there and bowled the way that I know I'm capable of.
"It felt great to pull this comeback off, and no matter what happens in the future, I can look back on this day and be like, 'Stephanie, you shot 96 and you came back from it. If you can overcome this, what's stopping you from accomplishing anything you set your mind to?'"
Zavala joins No. 1 Bryanna Coté, No. 2 Shannon Pluhowsky, No. 3 Diana Zavjalova and No. 5 Shannon O'Keefe in the stepladder finals of the Tour Championship that will determine Player of the Year. The show begins at 5 p.m. EST on CBS Sports Network.
Even if Zavala wins her first career major and fourth title of her rookie season, breaking a tie with good friend Julia Bond for the most titles this season, she still wouldn’t win Player of the Year because she is too far back on the season-long points list.
Part of the trouble for Zavala in that respect is that she skipped January’s Kickoff Classic Series, which Player of the Year contenders O’Keefe and Coté both bowled and, as it happens, saw Coté win her second career title in the ITRC Classic. Finishing outside the cash in 48th place at the Lincoln Open, and again at the Albany Open, where she finished 33rd, also made a Player of the Year bid a bit less probable for her.
But that is OK with Zavala. After winning three titles in her rookie year, making the show in two of the season’s three majors, and defying the most unlikely odds this week in Reno, she knows how she feels about the season she put together in 2021.
“I’m leaving tomorrow feeling like I was the Player of the Year,” Zavala said.