Vanderbilt junior Brittni Hamilton picked up a bowling ball at the age of four and never put it down.
If she had, she would have missed out on a journey that has taken her around the country, across the world and into elite company.
“It has been part of my life for so long I really can’t see my life without bowling in it anymore,” she said. “I have made so many friends in other countries. Traveling around and all over the U.S., we have friends everywhere. Bowling just has been a huge part of my life.”
And Hamilton has been a huge part of Vanderbilt’s success. This week, she leads the fourth-ranked Commodores into their sixth straight NCAA Bowling Championship as they will try to win their first national championship — and just the second in school history, in any sport — since capturing the title in 2007. The eight-team tournament begins on Thursday in Taylor, Mich., with the semifinals and championship game to follow on Saturday. Vanderbilt is hoping to reach the semifinals for the first time in three years.
For Hamilton, this weekend will cap off an exciting last 10 months. It began last summer when she won the Junior Gold Championship — a national amateur tournament — in Indianapolis. She followed that up by winning a silver medal for Team USA at the World Youth Championships in Helsinki, Finland.
“It was a really big summer. It was a lot of fun,” Hamilton, 20, said. “It was really cool to be able to represent my country like that, wear USA on my back and it is an experience I will never forget. It was amazing.”
Then, last Friday, Hamilton received one of the sport’s biggest honors when she was named the 2010 United States Amateur Female Bowler of the Year by the Bowling Writers Association of America.
The award is not a collegiate honor but one that spans all of amateur bowling. There is no longer a professional women’s bowling Association. Therefore, Hamilton was chosen over amateur bowlers who have professional experience. She is believed to be one of just a handful of bowlers who have won the award while still in college.
“In the bowling world, it is a pretty big honor,” Vanderbilt coach John Williamson said.
Added Hamilton: “I just wanted to come in here and be a contributing member on the team. Having all this success, it is awesome. I would never have expected it.”
Williamson expected it.
Apparently others did, too. Courted by bowling powers Nebraska and Central Missouri, who are both in the national tournament this week, Hamilton narrowed her decision down to Vanderbilt and Wichita State. The Shockers, however, compete on the intercollegiate level and not through the NCAA. Thus, Hamilton left her hometown of Webster, N.Y., for Vanderbilt and Music City — and made Williamson a happy man.
“It was something we were hoping to get,” Williamson, who is in his seventh season as head coach since the inception of the program in 2004, said. “From pretty much the start of recruiting her, you could tell early on that she was going to be very good. She has done nothing but just sort of reinforce that.”
In her three years at Vanderbilt, Hamilton has been named an All-American three times, was national rookie of the year in 2009, has won numerous individual tournament titles and has been named to several all-tournament teams.
Her 207 pin average this season is the highest of her career and ranks second in the nation. The 5-foot-4 Hamilton’s steady mental approach — along with a consistent roll out of her right hand — has aided her as Vanderbilt’s leadoff bowler.
“As she goes, we go. We wouldn’t be able to do what we have done unless she was willing to embrace the leadoff spot and take it,” Williamson said. “The thing she is able to do I think better than others is she can repeat shots. She is very consistent. Mentally, she is never really high or low. She is just sort of right in the middle. When she is struggling a little bit, it doesn’t allow her to get worse. She is the type that can keep the bad game fairly high and yet she is good enough when she is on she can string them together.”
Remembering Harry: The team will break the huddle on Thursday the same way they have the last three months — by yelling the name “Harry.”
Harry is Harry Stoddard, the longtime general manager of Smyrna Bowling Center, where the Commodores have practiced and hosted home tournaments the last four years. Stoddard died at the age of 77 in January due to complications from pneumonia.
Williamson and Hamilton said Stoddard was a grandfather figure to the team — always talking to them, coming up with nicknames for the players, bringing them candy.
“Harry was a big part of our program,” Hamilton said.
“He wanted the best for us. He was always there for us and wanted us to win. It is weird not seeing him around. We miss him a lot. It was a hard for a while there, being back in Smyrna practicing and Harry’s desk being empty.”
The week after Stoddard’s death, the Commodores captured the Mid-Winter Classic in Arkansas. It was a big win for Vanderbilt, which had dropped out of the top 10 national rankings. The Commodores fell all the way 12th to at one point, their lowest ranking since 2005 when they moved up from club to varsity.
The team has turned around since, climbing up the polls to fourth, and Williamson thinks remembering Stoddard has played a big part. Not only do they shout his name when breaking the huddle but “Harry” is embroidered on the right sleeve of their uniforms.
“A lot of times when you start to struggle, is when you start to think about yourself and how does this benefit me?” Williamson said. “I think when they started thinking about Harry, then it went from Harry to the team. Then they started thinking about someone else and then it creates a little less pressure for themselves… I think the Arkansas tournament was sort of for him. Then I think we were able to get some success and some confidence. Then it sort of snowballed from there. But I think he was at the start of it and hopefully he will be at the end of it.”
Earlier this week, sophomore Jessica Earnest received the first Harry Stoddard Award, which recognizes a team member that “sums up what Harry meant and who Harry was,” Williamson said.
Three Commodores named All-Americans: The National Ten Pin Coaches Association named Hamilton, Jessica Earnest and Samantha Hesley to its All-American team on Wednesday.
Hamilton and Earnest were named to the second team and Hesley was selected to the third team. Earnest, a native of Vandalia, Ill., had a 202 pin average this season after being named the Rookie of the Year in 2010. Hesley, a junior transfer from Florida Atlantic, averaged 201 as the team’s anchor.