In a season full of adversity, Liz Kuhlkin nearly led her Nebraska Cornhuskers back to the pinnacle of her sport.
The Schalmont High School graduate and the defending national champion Cornhuskers had to settle for a runner-up finish at the NCAA National Women’s Bowling Championships last weekend in Wickliffe, Ohio, when they lost in the finals to Sam Houston State, 4-2.
Although her coach almost died in January, and her mother also became extremely ill during the season, Kuhlkin did her best to lead the youthful Nebraska squad to its second consecutive national crown.
Nebraska, which started two juniors, a senior, a sophomore and a freshman in the TV finals, just couldn’t get the key strikes when it needed them. Kuhlkin, the 2013 tournament MVP, took some solace by being named to the all-tournament team, as well as being honored as a first-team All-American for the second straight year.
“Obviously, it’s a little disappointing finishing second. It’s probably the worst feeling I’ve ever felt, standing there on TV and watching them [Sam Houston State] run over and pick up the trophy,” said Kuhlkin. “It’s not you picking up that trophy, and you want it so badly to be you.
“But it’s OK, I guess. I’ll take two TV finals in two years. A lot of collegiate bowlers never get that opportunity.”
Kuhlkin explained that the entire season was full of obstacles to overcome.
“First of all, our coach [Bill Straub] almost died during the season,” she said. “He had an aortic dissection, where his aorta literally split. He had a priest give him his last rites during surgery.”
With Straub trying to recuperate, Nebraska switched coaches, naming Johnstown graduate Paul Klempa the interim head coach for five tournaments.
“He [Klempa] should have been named the national coach of the year. If not for him holding the ship together, we could have gone all the way down,” said Kuhlkin.
“And then, I had some personal troubles of my own. My mother got really sick. She had a very complicated virus, and I was so far away from home that I couldn’t help. She was in the ICU for a long time. She’s finally doing a little better, although she has to walk with a cane and a walker, but she’s a fighter.
“I guess we have to be proud of ourselves. We can’t hang our heads. We came through so much this season.”
Kuhlkin continues to be one of the top female collegiate bowlers in the nation after a brilliant junior amateur career. A member of the Section II Class B state championship team at Schalmont, she was honored by the USBC as the top youth female high average winner and also rolled an 835 triple.
At Nebraska, she was part of the Cornhuskers’ third-place finish as a freshman and was the team’s stalwart on the lanes both last year and this year.
“I only have three weeks left of school, and then I’m a senior next year,” said Kuhlkin. “The next thing up for me is the Junior Team USA trials. I’m on the team, but I don’t know yet if I’m going to be picked to represent my country for the travel squad. They will be doing a lot of tests in their camp in June. They will test how hard I throw the ball and how versatile I am. They compare you to other people around the country before they put you on the team.
“After that, I’ll be competing in the Junior Gold in July, which is back in Buffalo. When the season starts up again, I’ll try to lead Nebraska back to another national championship. That’s all I can do. This has been an exciting year, but also a disappointing year at the same time. Now I’m going to put my bowling ball down for a while and regroup.”