Allison Gerding, a junior at the University of Central Missouri, is bowling and talking about her schoolwork.
"Anybody who majors in anything but elementary education is dumb," she tells the other women in Lane 2. "All we do is draw pictures and finger-paint."
It's a Tuesday afternoon, the second day of the spring semester. The 10-lane bowling alley sits at the south end of the student union. As the women on the Central Missouri bowling team prepare for practice — dressing down to shorts and T-shirts, bowling warm-up frames — their classmates stream by, carrying white plastic bags full of new textbooks.
Anyone who stops to watch sees immediately that the nine women on the lanes aren't enrolled in beginning bowling. Their power and accuracy send pins smashing against the back wall. They look disappointed when they turn away from the foul lane with anything left standing.
"Our team has so many girls who are awesome at what they do," says Danielle Dunkin, a sophomore who, at age 12, bowled in a scratch league at Pro Bowl Lanes in North Kansas City.
Dunkin is the lone homegrown player on the Jennies' roster. Her teammates have come to Warrensburg from Arizona, suburban Chicago and other faraway places. Here, in this Starbucks-free college town 60 miles from Kansas City, Central Missouri's soft-spoken coach has built a program with a national profile, one that routinely mints All-America and Team USA selections. The semester began with Central Missouri ranked fourth in the country.
Bowling is a real college sport, with polls and brackets and inscrutable eligibility rules. In 2004, the NCAA started sanctioning an official bowling championship (April Madness!). Last year's tournament winner, Vanderbilt, went to the White House and met the president, who held a bowling ball for the photo commemorating the visit.
To get to where Vanderbilt has been, the Jennies (Central Missouri's men's teams are known as the Mules) bowl five or six days a week for as long as two and a half hours. The players try to sharpen skills that many of them developed as tots bowling with their parents. Growing up, Dunkin bowled with her father, Carl, every Sunday afternoon. Before long, plaques and ribbons covered her bedroom walls. "As a kid, getting a big trophy is everything to you," she says.
College was a transition for Dunkin. In high school, she excelled at a sport widely regarded as something that beer drinkers do in the winter. "A lot of people — we'll say the nonbowler — think it's not very competitive," she says.
But once in Warrensburg, Dunkin was surrounded by women who attacked the pins with the same ferocity. Senior Bryanna Caldwell, the reigning Division II player of the year, once bowled a perfect game in competition.
Caldwell wants to continue to bowl once her eligibility expires. But her options are limited. The Professional Women's Bowling Association folded in 2003. The players who aren't ready to retire their custom-drilled balls have to wait for irregularly staged women's tournaments — or play against men.
"I would definitely try to bowl with men," Caldwell says. "They don't intimidate me one bit."
For now, though, beating Vandy will do.
Perched on the back of a plastic seat behind the scorer's table, Ron Holmes watches his bowlers scrimmage in two teams of five. In a style of play called the Baker format, the players on each side bowl two frames, creating a single team score.
"Switch lanes and do it again," Holmes says after Team A beats Team B by two pins.
Holmes has watched several thousand pins fall on these lanes, which are open to the public and glow in the dark on weekends. He bowled on the men's club team as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. He started coaching the men's and women's teams while he was getting his master's degree in exercise and sports science.