LAS VEGAS – Over the last few seasons, Kristopher Prather of Romeoville, Illinois, has been one of the most successful players on the Professional Bowlers Association Tour.
His emergence as one of the best in the world gave him the opportunity to submit his resume to be considered for Team USA, and a longtime dream was realized in 2020 when he was selected for the team for the first time.
The challenges and effects of COVID-19 turned that invitation into a two-year stint that ended with Prather getting to compete on three continents in 2021.
The 30-year-old right-hander isn’t quite ready for the journey to end, so he’s at the United States Bowling Congress Team USA Trials this week looking to earn his way back onto the team for 2022, rather than leave his fate in the hands of the National Selection Committee.
“Having been on the team and had the opportunity to compete overseas, I wanted to come here and try to earn that spot back, rather than relying on someone else to pick me based on my resume,” Prather said. “I think redemption is the perfect word because I’ve bowled well at this event in the past, but not well enough to earn an automatic spot.”
Past USBC Team USA Trials champion Kyle Troup of Taylorsville, North Carolina, also is spending the week at the Gold Coast Bowling Center looking to retain his spot on Team USA, and he, too, is coming off a memorable 2021.
Troup, 30, didn’t travel with the team last year, however. His record-setting success came on the PBA Tour, where he won two titles and set the single-season earnings record ($ 496,900) on the way to being named PBA Player of the Year.
Since his win at the 2018 Team USA Trials, Troup has earned four medals in international competition, a runner-up finish at the 2018 QubicaAMF Bowling World Cup, six of his eight PBA Tour titles, two PBA League championships and a team Eagle at the USBC Open Championships.
But, like Prather, Troup would prefer to bowl his way back into a red, white and blue jersey in 2022, instead of resting on his past success.
“This tournament is incredibly prestigious and so difficult to win,” Troup said. “You have to have five pretty good days, at least, and that’s not easy with the level of competition, which keeps getting better and better. It’s crazy to see the amount of talent out here, so to be crowned the champion is incredibly special. That’s the main goal, along with the honor of getting to represent the red, white and blue.”
After three days and three oil patterns this week at Gold Coast, both competitors are among the top 25 in the 161-player men’s field.
Troup has been consistent, finishing 17th, 16th and 32nd. He is fourth in the overall standings with 65 ranking points.
Prather finished tied for 106th in Monday’s opening round, and he feels the math may not be on his side this week, despite finishing sixth on back-to-back days Tuesday and Wednesday. He is 24th overall with 117 points.
The breakout star of the week, however, is Chicago’s Trent Mitchell, who is the three-day leader with 23 points. He has finished 11th, seventh and fifth.
Local Darren Tang is second overall with 38 points and followed by AJ Johnson of Oswego, Illinois (54), Troup and Dallas Leong of Las Vegas (66).
“This is a test of patience, and mine really has been tested with only a few games over 230, but still being able to hang out in the top 10,” Troup said. “I’ve been focusing on the three Cs – confidence, concentration and composure. Luckily, I’ve had that third C, because I easily could’ve gotten myself 80 points and put myself in a big hole.”
Wednesday’s third-round leader for the men was Andrew Guba of Las Vegas, who closed with a 289 game for a 1,386 total, a 231 average.
He was followed by Michael Davidson of Versailles, Ohio, and Chasten Pojas of Wahiawa, Hawaii, who tied with 1,376. Nathan Stubler of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, was one pin back with 1,375, and Mitchell took the fifth spot with 1,373.
The women’s side this week has been dominated by Shannon Pluhowsky of Dayton, Ohio, who is looking to earn a spot on Team USA for the 22nd consecutive time.
The 39-year-old left-hander has been in the top three each round and leads with seven points. She is followed by Julia Bond of Aurora, Illinois (23), Ashley Rucker of Bartlesville, Oklahoma (37), Hope Gramly of Aubrey, Texas (40), and reigning Professional Women’s Bowling Association Player of the Year Bryanna Coté of Tucson, Arizona (44).
Just outside of the top five is Shannon O’Keefe of Shiloh, Illinois, who was the top performer for the women on Wednesday’s 41-foot oil pattern. She averaged 241 over her six games, including a 299 game, for a 1,446 total.
O’Keefe has been battling a hip and leg issue, but she has been able to work through it with medication, regular use of a Theragun and attention from her chiropractor. With some advice from one of her former bowlers at McKendree University, she entered Wednesday’s block feeling the best she has all week.
“Today was the first day out of the three days I was able to really be myself and use my legs, which is Shannon O’Keefe,” O’Keefe said. “If I can’t use my legs, my release is all over the place, and that’s what I felt like I was battling this week. I wouldn’t have cared if I shot 190 every game today. It was such a relief just to feel better. It has been a long few months of frustration and tears and pain.”
Pluhowsky and Bond tied for second place Wednesday with 1,398 and were followed by Paige Peters of Toms River, New Jersey (1,373), and Gramly (1,347).
The women will be the first back on the lanes for Thursday’s fourth round, where they’ll face a 45-foot oil pattern. They’ll get underway at 11 a.m. Eastern, and the men will bowl their five games at 6 p.m. EST. The five conditions this week will range from 36-45 feet, with different volumes of oil for the women and men.
Even with a tall task ahead of him, Prather said he feels less pressure than he has at the Team Trials in the past, simply because of the experience he gained while representing the team in Colombia and the United Arab Emirates in 2021 and the rapport he has been able to build with the coaching staff.
He also has experienced a whirlwind of personal growth from a decade ago, when he was competing for spots on Team USA with a list of legends that included Chris Barnes, Tommy Jones and Bill O’Neill.
Prather admits he simply wasn’t good enough yet, but rather than be discouraged, he used the defeats as motivation to improve.
Now, he’s the veteran the young players are looking up to, and as much as he wants to be part of the team again, he also wants to set a good example for the new crop of young talent.
He wants to demonstrate resilience, especially after a slow start to the week, and convey the importance of how you carry yourself, act off the lanes and interact with peers, coaches and fans.
And, after a team gold medal at the 2021 PANAM Elite Championships in Colombia, and a trios world championship at the 2021 International Bowling Federation Super World Championships in the UAE, he’s ready for another chance to add to his own Team USA legacy.
“It’s a lot closer to my heart than I thought it would be,” said Prather, who collected five medals in 2021. “I didn’t bowl a lot in college, but team bowling has always been my favorite type of bowling. I love being able to look at someone else and know they support me just as much as I support them. Having had Team USA on my back for two events now, I’d do just about anything to have it more and more and more. It’s a feeling like no other. There’s nothing better.”
The tournament will conclude Friday with the introduction of Team USA and Junior Team USA 2022.
The top four age-eligible men and top four age-eligible women this week, based on ranking points, will earn automatic spots on Team USA, while two additional men and two additional women will be selected by the National Selection Committee from the pool of players that competed during the week at the Gold Coast Bowling Center.
Bowlers now must be at least 18 years old as of the end of the 2022 Team USA Trials to be eligible for the adult version of Team USA.
The National Selection Committee also will select additional men and women for the team based on submitted resumes. Those applicants must have been Team USA or Junior Team USA members within the last 10 years or among the top 25 in earnings during the 2021 PBA Tour season or top 25 in points during the 2021 PWBA Tour season.
After the final qualifying round at the Team Trials, the top three amateur men and top three amateur women will advance to a stepladder final to determine the U.S. Amateur champions. Both winners will earn spots on Team USA.
If the U.S. Amateur champion already has earned a spot on the team, the spot will be awarded to the next-highest Team USA Trials qualifier based on ranking points.
To be eligible for this year’s U.S. Amateur, a bowler must not hold or have held a professional membership (PBA or PWBA) in 2021. Also, anyone who has won a professional title (regional, national or senior) as a professional is not eligible to compete as an amateur.
For youth competitors, the top four age-eligible boys and top four age-eligible girls, based on ranking points, automatically will earn spots on Junior Team USA 2022. Two additional boys and two additional girls also will be selected by the National Selection Committee based on performances from either the 2022 Team USA Trials or 2021 Junior Gold Championships.
They will join the youth competitors who already earned their spots on Junior Team USA 2022 during the 2021 Junior Gold Championships.
BowlTV is providing wire-to-wire coverage of the events, including the announcement and introduction of Team UTSA and Junior Team USA 2022.