WYOMING, Mich. – When Stephanie Zavala of Downey, California, was growing up, she dreamed of one day becoming a household name on the Professional Women’s Bowling Association Tour and being mentioned in the same breath as legends such as Liz Johnson, Kelly Kulick and Shannon Pluhowsky.
Just three years into her professional career, Zavala is no longer just dreaming about it; she’s making it happen.
The 27-year-old right-hander took another step on Sunday night when she defeated Pluhowsky, 223-202, at Spectrum Lanes to win the 2023 PWBA BowlTV Classic and record her fifth career PWBA Tour victory in just under two and a half seasons.
Zavala, who earned $10,000 for the win, has now captured at least one title during each of her three seasons on tour. The stepladder of the BowlTV Classic was broadcast live at BowlTV.com.
Those who tuned in got to see Zavala put on quite a show.
The 2021 PWBA Tour Rookie of the Year earned the No. 3 seed for the stepladder finals after finishing match play with a 7-5 record and coming in with a 24-game total of 5,578, which included 30 bonus pins for each of her seven match victories.
Zavala’s first stepladder opponent was No. 4 seed Hope Gramly of Aubrey, Texas, who earned the right to face Zavala after defeating United States Bowling Congress Hall of Famer and seven-time PWBA Tour titlist Kulick, 259-216, in the night’s opening match.
Kulick, who earlier in the day recorded just the second 300 game of the 2023 PWBA Tour season, earned $2,000 for her fifth-place finish.
Although Zavala and Gramly squared off in Match 2, their bout ended up being the match of the night.
Zavala began the bout with an open frame, which allowed Gramly to take a seven-pin lead after three frames.
Gramly would return the favor one frame later, however, after her first ball in the fourth frame didn’t make it back to the pocket and left a 2-8-10 split.
After Gramly failed to convert, Zavala took advantage, going strike, spare, turkey in frames four through eight to establish a double-digit lead with just three frames remaining.
When Zavala stepped up for her ninth and 10th frames, she controlled her own destiny. Even with Gramly having recorded a triple of her own in frames seven, eight and nine, if Zavala could strike in the ninth and first ball in the 10th, she’d move on.
But Zavala didn’t strike in the ninth; instead, her ball drifted high and left the 3-4-6-7 split. She made a valiant effort at the conversion, but the 7 pin remained standing, resulting in a costly open frame.
Nevertheless, Zavala didn’t have time to dwell on the mistake; she needed to finish strong in order to apply pressure to Gramly.
Showing the poise that helped her reach the winner’s circle four times before, Zavala did just that, striking out to post a final score of 203.
That forced Gramly to go nine, spare, nine or better to win or eight, spare, strike to tie.
Despite being a PWBA Tour rookie, Gramly is quite familiar with being asked to come through in high-pressure situations.
In April, she was faced with a similar scenario while bowling anchor for McKendree University during the finals of the 2023 Intercollegiate Team Championships in Las Vegas.
On that occasion, Gramly stepped up and delivered a flush strike to defeat Maryville and give the Bearcats their second USBC Collegiate national title.
Things would turn out differently this time, however, as Gramly’s first ball in the 10th frame went out to the right and refused to recover, coming in light and leaving the 2-4-8.
She converted the spare and threw a strike on her fill ball, but the seven count to start the 10th was enough to allow Zavala to emerge with a hard-fought 203-202 victory.
For Zavala, the ability to come through in the clutch boils down to refusing to pine over mistakes and never giving in.
“I told myself that I needed to make her show up in the 10th; make her earn it,” Zavala said. “Sometimes that mentality fires me up a little bit. If I’m going to lose, I’m going to go down swinging.
“I knew that I was lined up and that it was my fault that I split in the ninth because it was just a bad shot on my part. I cleared my mind and remembered that I hadn’t missed on the left lane. It was just about having a short memory.”
Gramly, who was making her third stepladder finals appearance of the season and second in less than three days – she also qualified for the finals at Friday night’s PWBA Grand Rapids Classic – was forced to settle for fourth place and $2,500.
Zavala’s semifinal opponent wasn’t a rookie, but, like Gramly, she was seeking her first PWBA Tour title.
That opponent was Melanie McDaniel of Joliet, Illinois, who was making her first stepladder finals appearance after earning the No. 2 seed thanks to a 7-5 record and 5,691 24-game total (including bonus pins).
As those numbers clearly indicate, McDaniel performed brilliantly during qualifying on Saturday and throughout Sunday’s two rounds of match play.
Unfortunately, she was unable to keep the momentum going once the stepladder began, opening four times in the first eight frames to allow Zavala to cruise into the finals with a 224-169 victory.
Although her last game didn’t go as planned, McDaniel still had plenty to be proud of as she walked away with a career-best third-place finish and a check for $3,500.
Zavala, meanwhile, had punched her ticket to the championship match, and there she found a familiar opponent waiting for her in Pluhowsky.
Pluhowsky and Zavala battled for the title at the final major of the 2022 PWBA Tour season, the Tour Championship, which was held at USA Bowl in Dallas.
Zavala got the better of Pluhowsky on that occasion, defeating the then 39-year-old left-hander by a final score of 252-181 to pick up her first major title while denying Pluhowsky’s bid for a third.
Despite having gotten the better of Pluhowsky last time, Zavala certainly wasn’t overlooking the two-time PWBA Tour champion and 23-time Team USA member heading into Sunday’s rematch.
“Shannon is a phenomenal bowler, and she’s going to be a hall of famer,” Zavala said. “She’s somebody that I grew up watching and looked up to. I have pictures of me and her standing together with me holding up a pin that she signed for me, so it’s really great getting to compete against her.”
Despite the obvious respect that she has for Pluhowsky, Zavala made it clear from the first ball of the title match that she wasn’t intimidated by her childhood idol.
Instead, Zavala threw the first punch, starting with a double and two spares to jump out to a 22-pin lead, which was helped by a Pluhowsky 4-7-10 split in the fourth frame.
After making a ball change, Pluhowsky attempted to get back in the match with a turkey in the fifth, sixth and seventh frames.
It wasn’t enough to gain any ground, however, as Zavala responded with a triple of her own over the same stretch, which kept her lead intact heading into the final three frames.
Some of the spectators at Spectrum Lanes may have had their hopes up for another dramatic finish like the one between Zavala and Gramly in Match 2, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead, Zavala and Pluhowsky matched one another spare, strike, spare during each of their next three deliveries.
Pluhowsky had the higher fill ball, finishing with a strike to one-up Zavala’s ending nine-count; nevertheless, it was Zavala who emerged with the victory and tour title No. 5.
As expected, Zavala was very excited to find the winner’s circle again.
“This feels insanely great,” Zavala said. “This is what we dream of and work for. One day, I hope I’m a hall of famer, and I feel like I’m getting closer and closer with every win I’m able to get under my belt.”
On Sunday, Zavala demonstrated once again how tough she is to beat whenever a title is within her grasp.
The ability to close and get the job done when it matters most can be a very difficult skill to master, and it’s one that has eluded many talented bowlers over the years; nevertheless, when victory is in sight, that’s when Zavala is at her best.
“Once you’re in that title match and it’s so close that you can taste it, you have to put your foot on the gas and never look back,” Zavala said. “That’s the mentality I like to take in.
“I just wanted this win really bad. I wanted to defend my title at the end of the year at the Tour Championship, and this is the first step because now I’m in. You’ve just got to want it, and I did.”
The BowlTV Classic started with nearly 100 athletes on Saturday. All competitors bowled two six-game rounds of qualifying to determine the top 12 for Sunday’s match-play rounds.
Advancers bowled two six-game rounds of match play, with total pinfall and bonus pins determining the top five for the stepladder finals.
The BowlTV Classic was the second of three events in the Classic Series – Grand Rapids.
England’s Verity Crawley won the Grand Rapids Classic on Friday at Spectrum Lanes for her second PWBA Tour title, and competition at the PWBA Great Lakes Classic gets underway Monday at 10 a.m. Eastern.
The combined qualifying totals for the Grand Rapids Classic and BowlTV Classic (24 games) determined the 24 athletes advancing to the Great Lakes Classic. Pluhowsky led Great Lakes Classic qualifying with a 24-game total of 5,475 (a 228.13 average).
Gramly (5,325), Zavala (5,194) and Kulick (5,062) also advanced.
Pinfall will drop at the beginning of the Great Lakes Classic, with all advancers bowling three eight-game blocks of round-robin match play Monday and Tuesday. The top five competitors, based on total pinfall and bonus pins, will move on to Tuesday’s stepladder finals.
The finals of the Great Lakes Classic will be broadcast Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. Eastern on BowlTV, with the winner earning the $12,000 top prize.