McKendree: Home of small classes, presidential ice cream and the NCAA bowling champs

Courtesy Jonathan Mailhes

Freshman Breanna Clemmer was named MVP of the NCAA championships after leading McKendree to the title.

If you've never heard of McKendree University, take heart in this. Before accepting the job as director of bowling three years ago, Bryan O'Keefe had to Google the school to find out the particulars.

Where is McKendree?

"We still get that question flying out of the St. Louis airport, and we're 25 minutes from there," he said.

Perhaps sweeping five-time NCAA bowling champion Nebraska last weekend for the national title will put the Division II private liberal arts university in Lebanon, Illinois, on the map for the rest of the world.

Looking on ESPN on Saturday and seeing the Nebraska N next to the McKendree bear head was, I've got to say, pretty neat.
Chuck Brueggemann

In bowling circles, they were already there thanks to O'Keefe and his wife, Shannon, coach of the women's team. When athletic director Chuck Brueggemann needed to hire a coach, he himself took to Google, in search of a candidate who would share his vision of turning his alma mater into a power.

He hired two of the biggest names in the game in the O'Keefes.

"It's no fluke," said Nebraska coach Bill Straub, who coached Bryan O'Keefe in club bowling at Nebraska in the '90s. "It's bowling. You don't have to command the attention of 85 football players. If you can command the attention of 8-10 bowlers, you succeed with them or you don't. And the O'Keefes know what they're doing."

Here's what you need to know about college bowling. Yes, the Cornhuskers are a power along with Vanderbilt. But so is Arkansas State and Maryland Eastern Shore. And so is McKendree, which lists a student body of 3,001 that includes online learners and some stationed at nearby Scott Air Force Base. That leaves about 1,600 undergraduates attending the picturesque campus in Lebanon, where Charles Dickens apparently drew some of his inspiration for "A Christmas Carol" during an 1842 overnight stay.

Only 65 schools bowl in a season that starts in October and culminates in April with one national champion regardless of division. The Bearcats (McKendree's nickname) reached the final four last year, their inaugural trip to the national tournament.

"With bowling, the thought was we go out and hire the best coaches in the game, and the young talent throughout the country would follow them," Brueggemann said. "Getting on the same stage where we could beat Nebraska, I can't think of many other sports where the format would give you the opportunity. Looking on ESPN on Saturday and seeing the Nebraska N next to the McKendree bear head was, I've got to say, pretty neat."

Type "O'Keefe and bowling" into a search engine and make way for the accolades.

Former Team USA assistant Bryan O'Keefe, named head coach for Junior Team USA in January, is a guru. He achieved the U.S. Bowling Congress' prestigious Gold-level coach status, which puts him in a class that only 26 other active coaches in the world can boast.

Courtesy credit Jonathan Mailhes

Shannon O'Keefe, who still competes in pro events, has no trouble putting herself in her athletes' bowling shoes.

Shannon O'Keefe is a rock star in the sport with a fan page on Facebook exceeding 17,000 likes. The six-time world champion is a 13-time member of Team USA who remains a threat on the professional circuit.

"You have somebody who is still currently competing -- last year on tour I won three titles and made five TV shows," said the 38-year-old Shannon, who is leaving for Sonoma County, California, for her first tour event of 2017 on Monday. "I'm feeling all the exact same things that they're feeling. I'm very relatable for them not just in the game of bowling but in life itself."

Neither O'Keefe had been asked to coach at the collegiate level before a whirlwind nine days that included the initial call from Brueggemann, a trip to the suburban campus and acceptance of the position on June 9, 2014.

"We didn't know how long it would take, but with the knowledge we have in bowling, we knew we would be able to bring something special to a university if we could get the right girls to say yes," Shannon said.

Freshman Breanna Clemmer, perhaps the best prospect in the 2016 recruiting class, didn't hesitate. "I received an offer from Vanderbilt," said the Junior Team USA member from Clover, South Carolina. But she said preferred McKendree, largely, "because with Shannon and Bryan being there, I knew there was something big coming."

McKendree can't rival the Big Red culture in Nebraska or the tradition of Vanderbilt. But small class sizes and professor-student mentoring relationships distinguish the university that touts its dynamic music program, a 99 percent employment rate for students who earn graduate degrees and 34 athletic sports teams, including water polo.

Plus the president hands out ice cream bars to students on warm days.

That's all part of the sales package for the O'Keefes in building one of the nation's top bowling programs.

"As a competitive bowler, you get to choose," Shannon said. "We all compete for that same national championship trophy. I cannot begin to tell you how many girls we speak with who love the fact that they're going to be in a smaller learning environment where the professors know you by name, not the last four digits of your Social Security number."

"I've been in classes with 12 people and one had five," said Jessica Mellott, a junior from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I feel like I'm at home at McKendree. I have one professor I see every day. He calls me by name. He asks me how I'm doing, how the bowling program is doing."

Staff at St. Clair Bowl, a nearby 50-lane center that boasts the region's best fries, is also on a first-name basis with the Bearcats bowlers, who were determined to reach the pinnacle of their sport from the first day of practice.

That's when Shannon pulled out a spiral notebook to start a tradition. Every day since each bowler wrote the same two sentences on opposite pages in the book followed by her signature.

On the left hand page: "We are the 2017 NCAA national champions."

On the right, "I am a 2017 NCAA national champion."

Courtesy Jonathan Mailhes

Freshman Taylor Bailey was named to the all-tournament team at the NCAA championships.

Along with belief, the Bearcats shine at the technical aspect of the game behind the tutelage of Bryan. While bowling at the recreational level is essentially about staying behind a black line and throwing a heavy object in hopes of knocking down as many pins as possible, to Bryan, it's physics.

He's a master of finding each bowler's deficiencies and making changes on the fly that make an immediate impact on scoring.

"When something does need to change, you do it quickly so you're not wasting frames," Shannon said. "If you're three or four frames behind in making a crucial move, that's the difference in your winning and losing a game."

Those adjustments were key at the national championship at Raising Cane's River Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Despite coming in as the No. 2 seed behind the Cornhuskers, McKendree earned the top spot in the eight-team field after seven games of qualifying. The Bearcats then began play in the double-elimination Baker format tournament last Friday, defeating Sam Houston State and Nebraska.

McKendree then held off Sam Houston State again in a tight contest Saturday morning before facing the Cornhuskers once more in the evening finals.

It was Clemmer with two strikes in the 10th frame who sealed the title for McKendree, producing a chorus of screams to rival kids in the front seat of a rollercoaster.

Since the NCAA bowling championship was established in 2004, McKendree is the first non-Division I team to win it and the first ever to sweep.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," Mellott said. "It's something we wanted to accomplish all year long. Actually going out there and doing something we normally do and succeeding is just an amazing feeling. I'm speechless that we did it and we're actually national champions."

The really good news for the Bearcats? This team has no seniors. When the O'Keefes were hired, they envisioned this type of success in five years.

It only took three.

Was this the first of many titles for McKendree?

Said Shannon, "That's the plan."

Related Content