DALLAS - Stephanie Zavala of Downey, California, turned around her sophomore season Tuesday by averaging more than 250 across three wins to claim her first major at the 2022 Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour Championship.
The 2021 PWBA Rookie of the Year locked up her fourth tour title with a 252-181 win over defending champion Shannon Pluhowsky of Dayton, Ohio. Zavala earned $50,000 for the victory, while Pluhowsky will take home $25,000 for the runner-up finish.
Tuesday's stepladder finals were broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.
Zavala started the title tilt with five consecutive strikes, but the match opened up after a light hit on the headpin resulted in a 7-9 split in the fifth frame for Pluhowsky. Zavala recorded back-to-back spares in the sixth and seventh frames, and she added two more strikes to secure the win as Pluhowsky recorded a second split and open in the eighth.
"I was fully prepared to have to go off the sheet, because I know Shannon can strike with anybody," Zavala said. "But, when I was doing the math in my head and knew all I had to do was keep it on the lane, it felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I'm a major champion. It felt rewarding and incredible, and I couldn't help but smile."
Zavala was able to use the ball that helped propel her toward the top of the standings during match play Sunday, which included games of 300 and 297, on her way to the No. 3 seed. It was her second consecutive appearance in the finals at the Tour Championship, after a fourth-place finish in 2021.
Last year's Tour Championship put an end to one of the most impressive rookie seasons in the history of the PWBA Tour. Zavala won three titles and advanced to the championship round in a pair of majors.
Although she admitted to managing her expectations prior to the start of the 2022 season, Zavala found herself in the midst of a sophomore slump as the events continued to roll by.
She started the year with a 14th-place finish at the PWBA Rockford Open, and she nearly made the show at the United States Bowling Congress Queens, finishing tied for seventh.
After that, though, she only posted one top-20 finish over the next six events through the U.S. Women's Open.
She took advantage of the tour's break before the Professional Bowlers Association/PWBA Striking Against Breast Cancer Mixed Doubles event at the end of July to work on her game and more importantly, herself.
"I was definitely struggling with my confidence for a little bit," Zavala said. "Obviously, I didn't want a sophomore slump, but that's exactly what I did. After Queens, it seemed like I went on a very quick downhill slope. It felt really good to take a couple weeks off and put the time in to go to my roots and figure out why I fell in love with bowling. I put in the work to really get the confidence back in my game, and I took advantage of it at the Luci. I really felt great. It's not the season I wanted, but I can't deny that this win kind of erases the struggles from before. It feels amazing."
Pluhowsky put together an incredible run during the final round of match play Monday on her 40th birthday, averaging better than 257 for her eight games, including a 300 and 297, to earn the top seed for Tuesday's stepladder and have the chance to defend her title.
With Zavala striking to start, the left-hander knew she had to keep striking but ran into some trouble on the right lane in the fifth and seventh frames, allowing Zavala to increase her lead.
"I thought the right lane was hooking a little more, and then I missed right a couple times and it held," said Pluhowsky, a two-time major winner on the PWBA Tour. "I actually thought I rolled it pretty well in the fifth frame, and it didn't hook. We thought I may have missed it at the bottom, so I stayed in the same spot and left a 3 pin. I should have moved, but I didn't do it.
"It's disappointing, because I bowled so well yesterday and it comes down to one game, but I'd still rather bowl one game for the title then try and climb the ladder, so you take the good with the bad. To end the season on a high note is good, and yesterday was an amazing day."
Zavala advanced to the title match with a 234-224 victory over Colombia's Maria José Rodriguez.
The semifinals featured strong starts for both athletes, but Rodriguez gained the early advantage after a 4-6-10 split and open frame from Zavala in the fourth. Rodriguez opened in the seventh, missing the 2-8 combination.
Zavala felt her shot in the fourth frame was close, and she committed to making a move and staying aggressive.
"I got a little bit slow, but it wasn't bad enough to where I should have paid a cost that big," Zavala said. "After I wrapped up my shot on the other lane, I went to my ball reps and talked about it. They said if I feel good about it, make a two-and-one move. I had no second thoughts. I made the move, and it gave me that push in the middle that still allowed me to throw it right."
Finishing the match first, Rodriguez could have struck out to force Zavala to double for the chance to win, but she left a 10 pin on her first shot. A spare and strike to close the game meant Zavala needed a mark to move on, and she covered a 2 pin and struck to secure the win.
Rodriguez, the 2018 Tour Championship titlist, was looking for her third PWBA Tour and major title.
Zavala made her way to the semifinals with a run at perfection against Jordan Richard of Maumee, Ohio. Zavala started with nine consecutive strikes before leaving a 4-6 split on her first delivery in the 10th frame to record a 266-190 win.
Richard, the 2018 PWBA Rookie of the Year, was searching for her third tour title and first major championship.
In Tuesday's opening match, Richard started with four consecutive strikes on the way to a 220-196 victory over Shannon O'Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois.
O'Keefe, the 2017 and 2019 Tour Championship winner, started the game with three opens in her first five frames to quickly fall behind as Richard stayed clean through nine frames.
On Monday, O'Keefe claimed her third PWBA Player of the Year award. The 15-time PWBA Tour champion also earned the postseason honor in 2018 and 2019 as the player topping the season-long points list.
The Tour Championship was the final event of the season-ending Dallas Classic Series at USA Bowl.
The Dallas Classic Series featured three events - PWBA Dallas Classic, PWBA Pepsi Classic and Tour Championship - and kicked off Wednesday with 83 athletes.
The combined qualifying totals for the Dallas Classic and Pepsi Classic (24 games) determined the 24 athletes advancing to the Tour Championship.
Pinfall dropped at the beginning of the Tour Championship, and competition consisted of three eight-game rounds of match play Sunday and Monday. Total pinfall for 24 games, including bonus pins for each victory in match play, determined the five finalists for Tuesday's championship round.
Bryanna Coté of Tucson, Arizona, won the Dallas Classic on Thursday for her second title of the 2022 season and fourth career win. Ukraine's Dasha Kovalova claimed her fifth PWBA Tour title Saturday at the Pepsi Classic.
The 2022 season featured 12 events and kicked off in May at the Rockford Open.
Coté was the only player to win multiple titles during the season, while Germany's Birgit Noreiks and Erin McCarthy of Elkhorn, Nebraska, collected their first majors at the USBC Queens and U.S. Women's Open, respectively.
Olivia Farwell of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, won PWBA Rookie of the Year for the 2022 season. She secured the postseason honor after finishing in fifth place at the Pepsi Classic.