ARLINGTON, Texas - During one of the best rookie campaigns the Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour has seen in nearly 35 years, Stephanie Zavala encountered some unexpected challenges.
The 25-year-old faced and overcame each obstacle to reach her ultimate goal of becoming the 2021 PWBA Rookie of the Year.
Zavala, from Downey, California, collected three titles during the year and made back-to-back shows at the final two majors of the season during her dream debut on tour, and her mentality to keep fighting is something that has been with her from an early age.
Her wins at the PWBA Cleveland Open, PWBA BVL Open and PWBA Reno Classic tied her with Julia Bond of Aurora, Illinois, for the season lead in victories, and her six championship-round appearances put her in a four-way tie for the most in 2021.
The last newcomer to win three titles as a rookie on a professional women's bowling tour was PWBA and United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer Leanne Hulsenberg in 1987.
"That still doesn't seem very real to me," Zavala said. "For my name to be used in the same sentence as Leanne, she's a hall of famer. I still don't know how to put it into words. It's just a great and satisfying feeling, but now I'm hungry for more."
Striving for more has been a constant theme along Zavala's journey, whether it was trying to beat her brothers as part of a bowling family in southern California or putting in the extra hours during her time as a student-athlete at Sam Houston State University.
Making her way to Huntsville, Texas, in the fall of 2014, Zavala was only a month or two into her collegiate career when the news hit about the relaunch of the PWBA Tour in 2015.
Zavala had dreamed about one day becoming a professional bowler, and the news allowed her to forge her path in a program that had just won the NCAA Bowling Championship the previous season under the direction of head coach Brad Hagen.
"I was super excited," Zavala said. "I knew I was going to be a professional bowler one day, so when the tour was relaunched, it felt like everything was falling into place. I was going to have four years to be groomed by one of the best coaches in the country.
"The thing I really appreciated about Coach (Hagen) was that he never tried to sugarcoat anything for me. He gave it to me straight. I must have asked for a million one-on-one lessons. Anytime practice was over, I would stay after and ask him to help me work on things, and he was always willing to help."
During her time as a Bearkat, Sam Houston State advanced to the semifinals three times at the NCAA Bowling Championship, and Zavala was named a National Tenpin Coaches Association honorable mention All-American during her senior year in 2018.
She also found individual success during her college years, finishing fifth at the 2017 USBC Team USA Trials, while also collecting a runner-up finish at the U.S. National Amateur Bowling Championships, to earn spots on Team USA and Junior Team USA for the year.
"My confidence shot straight up," Zavala said. "At the time, I was struggling collegiately. To go into that tournament and let go, relax and perform the way I did, helped my mentality and kept pushing me toward my dream."
After finishing her senior year at Sam Houston State, Zavala elected not to immediately join the PWBA. She took some time to recoup from the rigors of being a student-athlete for four years and eventually set her sights on the 2020 season.
The 2020 season was postponed, and then canceled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing her start on tour to the 2021 season.
Zavala cashed in her debut at the PWBA Twin Cities Open, finishing in 26th place. She missed the cut the following week at the PWBA Lincoln Open, placing 48th.
"The first couple of events, I was nervous," Zavala said. "I didn't feel like I was bowling like myself. Everything was tight and tense. Leading up to going out on tour, I had felt great. My swing was loose, but when I got out there, I was just nervous. After the first two events, I kind of took a minute at home and really didn't practice the week before going to Ohio. I was putting way too much pressure on myself.
"I told myself to just go out there and have fun. I cashed in my first event and received my first professional check. What more could you ask for? I understood I didn't have to go out there and win or be perfect at my first event. It's a long season, and just because I didn't make the cut at my second event didn't mean the season was over. The mindset of it not being the end of the world, getting over it and working on it, really helped me a lot."
Upon arrival at Yorktown Lanes in Parma Heights, Ohio, Zavala quickly went to work at the Greater Cleveland Open. She averaged 241 for 24 games to earn the top seed for the stepladder finals.
In just her third event as a professional, she was bowling for the title. She rebounded from an early open frame to defeat PWBA Tour champion Bryanna Coté of Tucson, Arizona, for the win, 247-216.
"It went by so fast," Zavala said. "Before the stepladder started, (Storm ball rep) Matt McNiel sat down with me and told me this is where you need to breathe. It's going to go by extremely fast, and you need to be able to enjoy it. That helped me so much in that title match. I kept that mentality with me. I'm living my dream, and I need to breathe and enjoy it and run with it."
Three weeks later, the stars aligned again for the talented right-hander at the BVL Open at Farmingdale Lanes in Farmingdale, New York.
Zavala dominated the field on a demanding 40-foot oil pattern, out-averaging her next closest competitor by nearly 10 pins over 24 games to again earn the top seed for the finals.
She converted a 3-6-9-10 spare in the final frame against 2018 PWBA Rookie of the Year Jordan Richard of Maumee, Ohio, to lock up her second title in five events as a professional, 228-204.
The BVL Open had been on Zavala's radar since the schedule for the 2021 season was released. The stepladder landed on her birthday, which she shared with her grandfather, who had died in November 2020.
"As cocky as it sounds, no one was going to win that tournament but me," Zavala said. "I was bowling for me and my grandpa. When the schedule came out, I saw the stepladder was falling on my birthday. Having it be my grandpa's birthday, too, and our first without him, nobody was going to win but me. That day was something special to me."
The second win placed Zavala as the front-runner among a strong group of players vying for the PWBA Rookie of the Year award, including Breanna Clemmer, Maria Bulanova, Caitlyn Johnson, Alexis Neuer and Taylor Bailey.
Zavala continued to maintain her spot at the top of the points-based list and pushed toward the postseason honor as the season progressed.
She finished third at the PWBA International Bowling Campus Classic and advanced to her first televised final at the U.S. Women's Open, recording a fourth-place finish.
The performance at the U.S. Women's Open set Zavala in prime position to claim the season-ending award heading into the PWBA Fall Classic Series at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada.
Zavala started the Fall Classic Series with her third victory of the year, taking the top spot at the Reno Classic. She again defeated Coté in the title match, this time by a score of 207-194.
Zavala officially secured enough competition points at the next event (PWBA Pepsi Classic) to be honored as the top rookie for the 2021 season.
"It means the entire world and then some," Zavala said. "I can't put a price tag on that. I can't put a label on that. Being able to say that trophy is mine after wanting it so badly, it's a dream come true. I just smile every time I see it."
With her season-long goal achieved, and three wins under her belt, Zavala's encore for the 2021 season included arguably the greatest comeback in match-play history during the final event of the year at the PWBA Tour Championship.
Zavala started the all match-play event with 96 in her first game. After two eight-game rounds, she was in 20th place and 338 pins outside of the cut for the stepladder heading into the final round.
During her final eight games of match play, she posted a 7-1 record and averaged more than 251 to make an improbable run to her second consecutive show at a major championship.
Zavala finished fourth at the Tour Championship to conclude the season, but her incredible fight to make the stepladder is something she hopes inspires others.
"I'm OK to talk about it now, but I wasn't when it happened," Zavala said. "I shot a 96 and still did something amazing. If you're ever down or upset about something, it can get better, and it will get better. That moment alone will help me going into anything else I do in life. You can start at the very bottom, but that doesn't mean you're stuck there. No matter how far down you are, just keep fighting."