Husker Bowling Team Wins Championships, But Wants More Fans
Updated: Mar 24, 2022
Published for Nebraska Public Media
While many Nebraska fans obsess over football and volleyball, the lesser-known women’s bowling team has racked up championship after championship. The team just keeps winning, and the bowlers hope more people will start to notice.
It’s Monday afternoon in the Husker Bowling Center, where the women’s bowling team practices three hours a day, six days a week. Above the six-lane bowling alley, the red letters on a big white sign spell out “The Home of Nebraska Bowling: National Champions.” 13 titles are listed below: 1990, 1991, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2013, 2015, and 2021. Paul Klempa has coached the team for the past 25 years. The former assistant coach replaced coach Bill Straub on Sept. 3, 2019.
"We've had more success than any other program in the country," he said. "And that's not only recent success, but sustained over a long period of time."
But this year nearly interrupted that string of success. On a gloomy day in April in Kansas City, Missouri, the bottom seemed to be falling out. That day, the second-seeded Huskers played their first match in the NCAA tournament against the 15th-seeded team, the Medaille Mavericks. Klempa said it was a lengthy match.
"Ultimately, they ended up beating us, which was unexpected. Threw us for a loop. We couldn't really believe we had lost," he said.
One more loss and the team’s season would be over. The Huskers headed to grab lunch before the next game, but the bus driver wasn’t there to pick them up. So they walked across the parking lot to a fast-food restaurant.
"We walk in, of course, because of COVID the restaurants are open but nobody can sit inside," Klempa said. "You had to be outside or take it to go. We didn't have any cars to sit in. So we got our food and sat outside on the wet concrete sidewalk and just ate our food, while we got drizzled on. It was comical. I mean, it was just pretty much anything that could go wrong, did that first morning."
After lunch, Klempa gathered the team together.
"And I told them ‘Look, you know, let's not overreact to this. I mean, this has been a disaster, these last few hours, but we know we're better than this. We know we're more prepared than for this to happen the way it is. The last thing we need to do is just overreact to it. So let's just laugh about it," he said. "And we kind of all agreed that if we can go forward and do well and even win the national championship, this will be a great story to tell later on."
So he said they licked their wounds and went forward. They beat the next team, and the next. They found their momentum and kept winning. Seven matches straight.
Six years since their last championship, the Huskers women’s bowling team struck gold.
"Everybody in Husker nation needed a win, needed something to celebrate, even if it's just bowling," Klempa said. "It's not football, it's not basketball, or baseball, but at least it was something and it made people feel good about it."
The next day, they piled off the bus, trophy in hand, and walked to the third baseline at a Husker home baseball game. The chancellor took them to a luncheon. President Ted Carter hosted a dinner. But sophomore bowler Kayla Verstraete from Illinois said after those weeks passed, attention shifted away.
"It was like, 'Okay, now Husker football again,'" she said. "So it was kind of just like, we had our three weeks of fame, and then everything stopped."
It’s a lack of recognition that puzzles some members of the championship team. Last weekend, junior bowler Kendyl Hofmeister, who’s from Michigan, was working at the bowling alley and saw two men looking at the large NCAA 2021 trophy on a glass shelf along with the other trophies.
"And I just overheard a conversation the other day of a couple of older gentlemen saying that he didn't know that the bowling team had won a national championship. And I was kind of shocked," she said. "I'm like, 'How do they not know?' I mean, they have like all this Husker gear on. They have a bumper sticker on their car that says #1 Nebraska fan and they still don't know that bowling team won."
Bowlers Verstraete and Hofmeister wish the team received more attention. But junior bowler Gwen Maeha from Hawaii has a practical explanation for the lack of recognition.
"Would it be lovely to get it? Yes, it would," she said. "But we also need to understand that when it comes down to it, we don't bring any revenue to the athletic department. So it's hard."
By comparison, Husker football brought in $31,442,119 of revenue last year. Despite the lack of publicity, Maeha appreciates the fans’ support.
"It's amazing to know that the Husker fan support system is so big here," she said. "And it's just so good to have people there for our sport, especially when we're not that big. So, I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart."
The team hopes Nebraskans can watch its only home tournament on the last weekend of February at Hollywood Bowl in Lincoln. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the match live for the first time.
Editor's Note: Credits to the NCAA and ESPN for the audio of the Huskers winning the national championship in the audio story.