Sullivan: Medaille’s unlikely bowling dynasty targets ‘one for the thumb’

Sure, Jeff Walsh feels the pressure. He embraces it. He jokes with the women on the Medaille bowling team that the bullseye on their back gets bigger every year.

It comes with the territory. When you keep winning, the other teams are shooting for you. You become the target. And in the Allegheny Mountain College Conference, the Mavericks are the standard in women’s bowling, the team with the big bullseye on its back. 

Medaille has won four straight AMCC tourney titles. They’ve built a little bowling power at the intersection of Parkside Ave. and the Scajaquada. This season, they’re looking for another championship ring, what we used to call “one for the thumb.”

“It’s definitely made a difference in how some of the schools are recruiting,” Walsh said during a recent night practice at Classic Lanes in Tonawanda. “They’re starting to come into our area to recruit, where they never cared it before. Now I see them at high school tournaments. 

“They’re definitely trying to knock us off; there’s no doubt about it.”

For Walsh, the pressure is heightened by the fact that he’s in his first year as head coach. Walsh, a 1991 Kenmore East graduate, came to the program five years ago. He was an assistant for five years under Laura Edholm, the last two as associate head coach. 

With 86 perfect games to his name, Jeff Walsh (pictured with top bowler Sarah Radt) was the right person to led Medaille bowling in its quest for a 5th straight title.

Edholm was looking for someone with a strong bowling background to help Medaille get to the next level. Walsh, who has been working in the bowling industry his entire life and has bowled 86 perfect games as a top regional amateur, was an ideal choice.

The Mavericks won their first AMCC title in 2017 in an upset. Walsh’s daughter, Morgan, transferred from Fairleigh Dickinson and helped Medaille win the conference again in 2018 and ‘19. Morgan was recently hired as the head coach for the fledgling women’s bowling program at Bryant College in Rhode Island.

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In 2019, Medaille made its first trip to the NCAA tourney when the AMCC champion had its first-ever automatic bid. In 2020, they were favored to win the league again when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the tournament to be canceled just before it was supposed to begin.

Last year, the Mavericks won their fourth conference tournament title in a row and made history. In the first round of the NCAAs, they stunned No. 2-ranked Nebraska, which recovered to capture the national championship of the double-elimination event.

“We woke them up,” Walsh said of Nebraska. “We bowled them again in the third round and had them on the ropes. It came down to the 10th frame and they had to double to beat us.”

That Nebraska match was an emotional moment for Medaille bowling, one that cemented its reputation as a small-school women’s power.

“We’re unique,” Walsh said. “There’s almost 100 programs in the NCAA. Us being Division III, it’s a little harder challenge, because I can’t give athletic money. We’re all academic scholarships. I’m always asking, ‘Is the kid the right fit academically and athletically?’”

Sarah Radt is one of those perfect fits. Radt, who won three Section VI titles at Orchard Park High School, is the reigning AMCC bowler of the year and a two-time choice as Medaille’s female athlete of the year.

Radt, a junior, has been on the dean’s list since her freshman year. She’s majoring in criminal justice and homeland security with a minor in business management. Radt said Medaille’s rising bowling profile was the main reason she chose the school. 

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“Definitely the athletics,” she said. “We get a lot of support. Also, our class sizes. They’re small, and it’s nice because you can have one-on-one time with your professor. There’s definitely a lot of time management between athletics and school.”

Walsh said he had a vision for the Medaille program when he was hired. He and Edholm began recruiting stronger athletes. Bowling can be a physical grind. He said he learned a great deal about how to lead from Edholm, who handed over the program this season when she took over the Medaille golf team. 

“She was super positive,” Walsh said. “She was a very, very good mentor in teaching them that even in bad times, you have to take positives out of it. She was instrumental in teaching me how to react to things.”

Walsh’s specialty was the sport and science of bowling, which has been his life for the last 33 years, the only job he ever had. He bowled in regional competitions as a kid, then made some decent money bowling in amateur competitions around Western New York.

Medaille women’s bowling is going for its fifth straight AMCC title. (Courtesy of Medaille Athletics)

He moved to Las Vegas at one point and worked for three years at K&K Links, one of the largest bowling pro shop chains in the country. He runs a couple of pro shops in Western New York.

“We opened a training facility and I ran the training facility,” Walsh said. “Unfortunately, my father became ill and it brought me back to Western New York. I came back and got the opportunity to do this, and here we are.

“I love it. I just love it.”

Walsh teaches the Mavericks to believe anything is possible, to shoot high. They play a demanding non-conference schedule, traveling regularly to tournaments with teams from Division I and II. They’re currently 11-12, which reflects the quality of opposition. 

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“We don’t shy away from anything,” he said. “I want us at as many big strong tournaments as we can get. I believe it only makes us better. We beat a really strong Duquesne team last weekend. They were 11th in the country. 

“When we get to the conference, I want us to never have a loss because we’re so prepared when we get there. These tournaments get us ready for that.”

The Mavericks, who opened the season at tournaments in Ohio and Pennsylvania, get to play at home this weekend in the Medaille Invitational. The ultimate target, of course, is the AMCC Tournament in late March. Win that, and they get back to the NCAAs. 

Walsh feels the pressure to win again in his first season as head coach. Despite graduating three seniors from last year’s team, they’re again the favorite.

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“I do,” he said. “I’m not nervous about it, but it’s definitely in my mind. Because I want to continue what we’ve been building. We have so many kids now who are interested in our program, I don’t want it to stop.”

Radt remembers the adrenaline rush when the Mavericks upset Nebraska in the NCAAs last April, the sheer joy she felt for her teammates and for the program. Like any team on a historic streak, they don’t want to be remembered as the ones who lost it.

“Oh, yeah,” Radt said. “The girls want to keep this going. I’m a pressure person, so I like the pressure, and I believe our team will rise up to it. Hopefully, we will win AMCC and go to the NCAA again. It is a big target and I know a lot of teams are coming for us, but I think we can do it.”

What program doesn’t welcome the pressure that comes with being expected to win a championship every year? It’s the vision that Walsh had when he arrived on campus. 

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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