Kansas Wesleyan bowling coach Austin Wiley wasn’t particularly pleased with his women’s team heading into the holidays.
“Coming off first semester we weren’t where we wanted to be,” said Wiley, who’s in his first season as the Coyotes’ coach after a sterling career competing for the KWU men.
He knew some things had to change, immediately.
“We put our heads down and worked hard and it got to a point where we could have a chance to go to nationals,” he said. “It all comes with hard work and dedication and they did well.”
It culminated February 26-27 in Fremont, Neb., when Wesleyan defeated Morningside 4-1 in the finals of the NAIA Group Championship that featured teams from the Kansas Conference and Great Plains Athletic Conference.
The title was the first for the KWU women’s program and gave the Coyotes their inaugural berth in this week’s NAIA National Championships at Five Star Lanes in the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, Mich.
Their progression second semester didn’t come easily, though.
“We gradually got better with practice, more accepting that the hard drills are going to help us,” Wiley said. “At first, they were really resistant to it, they didn’t think much of it, they didn’t think it was going to help them.
“I think all of them have improved dramatically. I’ve pushed them hard; I tell them their weaknesses all the time. I say ‘this is how we’re going to get better,’ we focus on the stuff they need to work on. They have grown so much in the past four months to really set themselves up for postseason.”
Madison Elskamp (SR/Topeka, Kan.), who’s in her fourth season as a member of the program, agrees.
“Lots of practice and we did lot more team bonding than we have in a lot of past years,” she said. “So, I think having the extra team chemistry really helped. We’ve all become better teammates.
“We had a lot of confidence going into the conference tournament. We did some team bonding the night before so we were all really close and we had a lot of confidence going into the next day.”
Qualifying for the 12-team field begins Thursday with Baker play to determine seeding. Once seeding is completed brackets will be announced and teams will compete through a double-elimination bracket Friday and Saturday.
Wiley is relaying his experiences as a national qualifier in 2021 to his team to help prepare for what they’ll encounter. The Wesleyan men’s team advanced to the NAIA Championships for the first time in program history, which also was at Five Star Lanes.
“I know the surfaces going to the same place, I know everything about the center,” he said. “I felt what it feels like to be in those pressure situations. I feel I can tell them the right things to calm their nerves and get them in a spot that they want to compete.”
Wiley said the atmosphere will be unique.
“I think the biggest thing that I noticed with our guys’ team is how much more amped up and loud and proud everyone was that was there,” he said. “Usually in the past we weren’t like that but when you just live in the moment and know that you’re on the biggest stage – top 12 in the nation for the NAIA is huge – it gets to you and you’ve got to let that excitement fuel you. Make good shots and give yourself a chance.”
Elskamp is eager to compete at the highest level, pressure notwithstanding.
“It will definitely be a new experience for everyone and it will be just trying our best and see what we can do,” she said. “I think we’re all just excited to experience something new.
“It’s a lot bigger than (just another tournament) – I have to tell myself that every time just before I throw the ball.”
Elskamp’s teammates in Michigan will be Taylor Lang (JR/Hutchinson, Kan.), Kara Thompson (FR/Rio Rancho, N.M.), Jasmine Senechal (SO/Maryville, Tenn.), Hayleigh Hale-Haggard (SO/Allen, Texas) and Linda Himes (JR/Texarkana, Ark.).
Wiley believes his team is ready.
“They have grown as a team, not only performance-wise but as teammates in the last six months,” he said. “Being able to work together, help each other when they’re struggling. It’s hard when you know you have a teammate sitting out but you still have enough selflessness to go and help your teammate.
“If you can do that, you’re being a great team player. And we’ve been doing that as a team lately.”