SMYRNA, Tenn. - The 2021 Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour season will hit its halfway point this week at the PWBA Greater Nashville Open, with the first nine events of the year showcasing a mix of youth and experience in the winner's circle and at the top of the season-long points list.
The Greater Nashville Open is the 10th event on the 20-tournament schedule for the 2021 PWBA Tour season, which kicked off in January. This week's event at the Smyrna Bowling Center will begin Thursday with the official practice session, and competition will get underway Friday with two six-game qualifying rounds.
The top 32 athletes will advance and bowl another six-game block Saturday to determine the top 12 players. A final six-game round will determine the four players for the stepladder finals, based on pinfall totals for 24 games.
The finals of the Greater Nashville Open will take place Saturday at 7 p.m. Eastern, with the winner taking home $10,000. All qualifying rounds, and the stepladder finals, will be broadcast live on BowlTV.com.
A pair of 25-year-olds have made the biggest impact on tour so far this season, with Julia Bond of Aurora, Illinois, and Stephanie Zavala of Downey, California, each collecting a pair of wins in the first half of the year.
Bond, in her second season on tour, won her first national title at the PWBA Hall of Fame Classic in January, and she followed that performance with an undefeated run through the bracket at the United States Bowling Congress Queens, the first major of the 2021 season.
Bond leads the tour in points (70,225), which determines who is recognized as PWBA Player of the Year at the end of the season.
The five-time Team USA member learned a lot during her rookie season in 2019 that helped her prepare to make the leap to the next level. She was runner-up for PWBA Rookie of the Year to Valerie Bercier of Muskegon, Michigan.
"It feels a little surreal to be in the conversation (for PWBA Player of the Year), especially so soon, but I'm grateful to be in the hunt," said Bond, a former collegiate standout at Nebraska. "Something I learned during my rookie season was to not let outside distractions like that dictate how I go about my business. I think I wanted rookie of the year so badly that when I felt like I wasn't reaching that goal, it meant I wasn't succeeding, but that was far from the truth. Right now, all I'm concerned about is doing my best, learning and growing into the athlete I want to be."
Part of the learning that has helped Bond's ascension in 2021 has been with her equipment, but she's also grown to be more comfortable as an athlete on tour and has embraced the opportunity to be more aggressive in her decision-making.
"The best things that have helped me this season have been understanding my equipment better, getting comfortable in my environment and taking risks," said Bond, a three-time PWBA Regional champion. "When you understand the shapes of your equipment, it's easier to make decisions and get to the right shapes faster. I think now I'm ready to admit that I wasn't completely comfortable in my environment my rookie year. I still was learning the ropes of the format and pacing, and I still was concerned about if I belonged or what people thought of me. Now, that's not even a question or thought. I'm exactly where I'm meant to be.
"Lastly, I was just playing scared. I didn't make big enough moves. I wasn't willing to completely change game plans like I am this year. I'm not as concerned about failing, because now I believe those risks will lead to success or learning. When you learn, you never lose."
Some familiar names can be found in Bond's rearview mirror on the points list heading into the Greater Nashville Open, however.
Two-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year Shannon O'Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois, moved into second place on the points list after last week's runner-up finish at the PWBA Albany Open. O'Keefe, who won the season-opening PWBA Bowlers Journal Classic for her 14th PWBA Tour title, has accumulated 61,850 points in eight events.
Missy Parkin of Laguna Hills, California, is third in points (59,700) on the strength of a pair of runner-up finishes, including the USBC Queens, and three championship-round appearances.
Three-time PWBA Player of the Year Liz Johnson of Niagara Falls, New York, found her way into the winner's circle at the PWBA Lincoln Open, which included a 300 game in the semifinals. The 25-time PWBA Tour titlist is fourth in points with 58,185.
Ukraine's Dasha Kovalova is fifth in points (56,835) after claiming her third career win at the PWBA Twin Cities Open in April. Kovalova, 2019's breakout star on tour, has advanced to three stepladder finals this season.
Zavala is part of a talented rookie class in 2021, and she quickly vaulted her name into the conversation for the PWBA Rookie of the Year with an unforgettable run in May.
The former collegiate standout at Sam Houston State earned the top seed at the PWBA Greater Cleveland Open and claimed the victory in just her third event as a professional.
She followed the win with a dominating performance at the PWBA BVL Open, where she outdistanced her next closest competitor by 229 pins on a low-scoring oil pattern and recorded her second title in three events.
Zavala admits there have been some bumps in the road as well, but the confidence she's gained since starting on the tour in April has been worth it.
"The first half has been a bit of a roller coaster for me," Zavala said. "I've won a couple titles, which has been a dream come true, but I've also missed a couple cuts, which is disappointing because I had a goal making every Round of 32. My confidence has never been this high, though. When I struggled at the previous events a couple years ago, I doubted my abilities and wondered if I should continue to pursue this crazy dream of mine. I'm glad I stuck it out."
Zavala leads the rookie-of-the-year standings heading into Smyrna with 37,650 points, but she is closely followed by Breanna Clemmer of Clover, South Carolina.
Clemmer, a four-time National Tenpin Coaches Association Division II/III Player of the Year at McKendree, has recorded back-to-back third-place finishes the last two weeks on tour to close the gap on Zavala. She's less than 2,000 points behind Zavala with 36,075.
Caitlyn Johnson of Beaumont, Texas, is third with 27,635. Johnson was a two-time National Collegiate Bowling Coaches Association Most Valuable Player at Webber International and has a top finish of 10th this season at the PWBA ITRC Classic.
Abby Ragsdale of Aurora, Illinois (23,650), Taylor Bailey of Joliet, Illinois (22,910), and Russia's Maria Bulanova (22,850) also are within 15,000 points, and Zavala knows she'll need to continue to put together strong performances each week to take home some additional hardware at the end of the season.
"(PWBA) Rookie of the Year was my ultimate goal, so to have my name in the mix is huge," Zavala said. "It's extremely validating, and I know it's going to be a close race all the way to the end because of how talented this rookie class is. I'm hoping with all the work I've put in, the tides keep rolling in my favor."