Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, March 9, 2013 | 2 a.m.
IF YOU GO
What: The United States Bowling Congress’ Intercollegiate Team Championships Sectional West Qualifier, one of four being played this weekend across the country
Where: Texas Station
When: 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. today and 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday
Who: 20 teams, including UNLV, Arizona State, University of Arizona, University of Kansas and Texas A&M
Next: Top 10 teams advance to the nationals
Every March for more than a decade, a small cadre of UNLV athletes has earned national recognition for the school.
But they’ve got nothing to do with March Madness.
These guys are the Rodney Dangerfields of Rebel athletes. When they appear, there’s no confetti, no sports writers, no Hey Reb and certainly no pre-game fireworks.
Today the 12-member team will compete in its 16th consecutive sectional championship — the equivalent of making the NCAA basketball tournament every year since 1997.
Still, students offer blank stares when asked about the team. When it comes to fan support, these bowlers are not just in a league of their own, but a different world altogether.
“You come in knowing that you’re not going to get recognition,” senior Nick Lamek says. “I tell people I’m on the bowling team and they ask, ‘UNLV has a bowling team?’ ”
They practice late into the night — when other students are doing homework, working a job or falling asleep — because they love the spirit of competition and the camaraderie of winning as a team. They’re certainly not doing it to win the recognition of adoring fans because, well, there aren’t any.
Achieving even university recognition has proven as difficult as picking up a 7-10 split. The university does not recognize bowling as one of the college’s 17 sports, but rather as a club — like the campus badminton and table tennis clubs, sponsored by the Student Recreation and Wellness Center. The NCAA does not recognize bowling as a sport, either.
As a result, team bowlers must pay their own way to out-of-town competitions, spending between $300 and $600 each tournament trip to cover the flight, transportation, hotel room, food and tournament entry fee. Many of the bowlers work full-time to pay their costs. UNLV doesn’t offer bowling scholarships.
Seven-year head coach Joey Shugart, who used to play on the team, doesn’t receive a salary and empathizes with his squad members’ financial woes. For a Feb. 15 tournament in Indianapolis — the last of the season and which helped establish the credentials to play in the sectionals — Shugart borrowed $800 from his mother to pay tourney fees.
If the bowlers have had difficulty gaining respect on campus, they’ve at least learned to bond as a team despite some rough going at the start of the season.
The challenge was to nurture a sense of teamwork among a dozen guys with disparate personalities, including bowlers who hadn’t previously experienced it as a team sport. Unlike a sports league where teams are formed around existing friendships, some of this team’s members had no prior relationship with one another, and there was some chilliness.
Lamek, who leads the Rebels with a 199 average, compared the discomfort to the first days of high school. “There were cliques. I bowled with a couple of these guys last year, and the new people were kind of off” on their own.
If a bowler missed a spare, there was silence instead of support.
The team began to jell during a tournament in Atlanta. “It was a huge steppingstone of growth for our team,” said Lamek, who throws a stinging, explosive hook. “Everyone started getting along.”
And now they have found something they all agree on: Their jerseys look horrendous.
“I actually hate the one that has the Rebel face across the shirt diagonally,” Lamek said. “I have been complaining about it for three years. A ceremonial burning is in order.”
Other bowlers say they don’t wear the shirts while on campus because they look so goofy.
Spenser Lilley, a lanky, hard-throwing bowler, says he is eager for the sectional tournament to begin, after a roller-coaster season of victories and losses. The team in recent years has been ranked in the top 20 nationally, but this year is buried by scores of other schools.
But that doesn’t mean that the bowlin’ Rebels can’t step up this weekend and turn a few heads.
The season, Lilley said, was “hectic and successful — hectic because we are working hard to get where we were, successful because we are where we want to be. Now we just have to win it.”
And if nothing else, the guys are having fun. “We get in the car or the plane, go somewhere, bowl for 10 hours. Now we’re the loud team,” team veteran Kary Nguyen said.
Carl Winder is a UNLV journalism student.