ARLINGTON, Texas - The 2021 Professional Women's Bowling Association Summer Classic Series may have gone differently than Taylor Bailey had hoped, but she was able to end the week on a high note by winning the 2021 PWBA Dallas/Fort Worth Regional.
Bailey, of Joliet, Illinois, defeated Russia's Maria Bulanova at the International Training and Research Center, 246-224, to earn the first title of her professional career, along with a custom championship bracelet and $1,000 top prize.
Both qualifying and the stepladder finals of the Dallas/Fort Worth Regional were broadcast live Sunday at BowlTV.com.
The win comes after a remarkable collegiate career at McKendree and stint on Junior Team USA, a phase that included a pair of collegiate national championships and a team gold medal at the 2018 International Bowling Federation World Youth Championships.
The timing also meant the ultimate present for Bailey's father, Jeff, and her collegiate coach Bryan O'Keefe, who both celebrated birthdays Sunday.
"I told my dad this was his birthday present, even though I already bought him something, but I think this is the best thing he could've asked for," Bailey said. "Being called a PWBA champion of any kind sounds incredible, and it's something I've always dreamed of."
The 2021 Dallas/Fort Worth Regional was the third of four events at the PWBA Summer Classic Series, which includes three national tournaments and the regional competition.
The regional event was open only to bowlers who have not yet won a PWBA Tour title and those who did not qualify for the 24-player PWBA BowlTV Classic, the final tournament of the Summer Classic Series.
Bailey, a 23-year-old right-hander, said she felt like she was throwing the ball well during the first two events of the Summer Classic Series, but something was missing. She just didn't have "it." Then, her shoe broke.
A clean slate and loaner shoes from former McKendree teammate Ashley Hathaway, who lives in the area, helped get Bailey back on track. She earned the top seed for the championship round with a 1,799 total for her eight games of qualifying at the ITRC on Sunday, an average of nearly 225.
Meeting each other in the championship match was not unfamiliar to Bailey and Bulanova, who faced off countless times in their four years together in college, as Bulanova starred for Vanderbilt. That also includes multiple visits to the ITRC for the Prairie View A&M Invitational and a meeting in the title match of the 2018 NCAA Women's Bowling Championship, won by Vanderbilt.
Bulanova finished Sunday's title game first and had an opportunity to apply pressure, but she could not shut out Bailey.
Bulanova struck in the ninth frame and on the first shot of her 10th frame, but a 2-4-8-10 split on her next offering meant Bailey just needed to keep the ball on the lane in her final frame.
In three stepladder matches, Bulanova averaged more than 234 and only had three shots where she knocked over less than nine pins. Regardless of the finish, the performance gave her a rush of confidence heading into the final stretch of the 2021 PWBA Tour season.
"I didn't really have a good week before the regional, so it was important for my self-confidence to bowl well today," Bulanova said. "Even though I didn't win, I'm super proud because I think I bowled really well. Taylor did a fantastic job in the final, and she was the top seed, but I am proud of how I bowled. I'll keep working, and hopefully soon, I'll be making more cuts and maybe a top 12 or even a show by the end of the season."
In the semifinal match against Fania Cobo of North Richland Hills, Texas, a recent collegiate bowler at Wichita State, Bulanova nearly let the game get away with a 1-2-4-6-10 washout in her final frame, which she was unable to convert.
Two strikes and seven pins would've earned Cobo a spot in the title match instead, but a 2 pin on her first shot left her short. Bulanova advanced, 232-223.
Bulanova, a 22-year-old right-hander and the No. 3 qualifier, started the night's opening game with four consecutive strikes and cruised to 247-189 win over Kara Mangiola of Spencerport, New York.
All four regional finalists are part of the 2021 PWBA Tour rookie class and learning from each experience on the lanes.
"I think it's really easy as a rookie coming out here to be super eager to do well and win on tour, but I keep telling myself Rome wasn't built in a day, so even if it takes me a whole season to learn and experience things, that's OK," Bailey said. "Now, I have bowled on BowlTV, and I have a win, and that is all important experience."
The 2021 PWBA Summer Classic Series brought 56 players, representing more than a dozen countries, to the ITRC.
Germany's Birgit Noreiks took home the title at the PWBA Go Bowling Classic for her first individual win and second victory overall, while former Team USA member Jen Higgins of Lewis Center, Ohio, won the PWBA International Bowling Campus Classic on Saturday for her first PWBA Tour title.
Bailey finished 24th in the PWBA Go Bowling Classic and 51st in the PWBA International Bowling Campus Classic, so her time in Arlington has concluded, but she'll now return to Illinois, where she'll continue to train with two-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year Shannon O'Keefe, also the head women's bowling coach at McKendree.
Following her graduation from McKendree and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bailey got the opportunity to move in with the O'Keefes and work on an online master's degree from Southern Illinois University.
Working with the O'Keefes on and off the lanes has been an invaluable experience, while walking past 14 PWBA trophies and countless other awards every day has been both intimidating and motivating for Bailey.
"When I first went to McKendree, I definitely was intimidated by Shannon, and I think that's still a little true, especially when she's bowling," Bailey said. "But, it's also what has pushed me to be a better bowler. I'm constantly learning from her and Bryan and picking their brains, and it has been really helpful for me."
The O'Keefe influence also helped Bailey down an unexpected path as a coach. She'll soon head to Arkansas State, where she'll serve as the assistant coach for the bowling team.
The action in Arlington now shifts to the BowlTV Classic, which gets underway Monday at 11 a.m. Eastern with the first of three rounds of head-to-head matches.
The 24 players qualified for the final tournament based on their 18-game qualifying totals from the Go Bowling Classic and IBC Classic (nine games each).
Total pinfall will drop at the start of the BowlTV Classic, and the advancers will bowl 24 games of round-robin match play Monday and Tuesday to determine the five bowlers for the stepladder finals, based on total pinfall and bonus pins for each match they win.
The BowlTV Classic will conclude live on BowlTV on Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern.