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Big day helps Stuart Williams into lead at 2018 USBC Masters

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Like any bowling event, the United States Bowling Congress Masters presents competitors with an ever-changing puzzle that must be solved in a set period of time, or games, often through a series of educated guesses.

Through two days of qualifying at the 2018 USBC Masters, Professional Bowlers Association Hall of Famer Chris Barnes (right) of Double Oak, Texas, has proven to be the among the most versatile problem solvers, turning in consistent performances on both variations of this week’s 40-foot oil pattern – the fresh and the “burn.”

The 48-year-old right-hander and three-time Masters runner-up rolled nearly identical scores during his first two qualifying blocks at the Oncenter Convention Center, shooting 1,082 on the fresh lane condition Tuesday and 1,078 on the burn Wednesday for a 10-game total of 2,160, which is 10th overall.

Other competitors in the 360-player field claimed their spots near the top of the leaderboard with help from a big block on either the fresh or the burn, while grinding along on the other.

England’s Stuart Williams (featured photo) holds the overall lead through two rounds with a 2,219 total, a 221.9 average, which included sets of 1,048 on the burn Tuesday and 1,171 on the fresh Wednesday morning. He catapulted from 48th place into the lead with the second-highest block of the day.

Williams is followed in the standings by 2016 Masters champion Anthony Simonsen (left) of Austin, Texas (2,214), Kyle Cook of Centerville, Ohio (2,182), and Chris Loschetter of Avon, Ohio, and Sean Lavery-Spahr of Pasadena, Texas, who are tied for fourth place with 2,178.

The 2018 Masters features a total prize fund of $270,000 and again is a major event on the PBA Tour. The winner will take home $30,000. The stepladder finals will be broadcast live on ESPN on Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern.

Defending champion Jason Belmonte (right) of Australia is 32nd with a 2,100 total, while Kevin Bienko of Kenmore, New York, and 2011 Masters champion Tom Hess of Urbandale, Iowa, are tied for 64th place with 2,047.

In theory, with two of the three qualifying rounds, and many of the match-play rounds, contested on fresh oil, the advantage this week could go to the players who have excelled on the fresh, but Barnes is familiar enough with the event to know to be prepared for anything.

He has put himself in a fairly comfortable position with five games to go in qualifying, and five more games on the freshly oiled lanes will allow him to continue to dial in on the most effective strategies, from the start, and as the lanes transition.

“Over the years, I’ve been pretty lucky and gotten to lead this event three times, and most of those times, I had a look from a few different parts of the lane, so it didn’t really matter if I bowled on the fresh or the hook or this type of player or that type of player,” Barnes said.

“Based on that, I’m looking for as many different avenues to get there, so that no matter what you bowl on, you have a plan of attack that will allow you to succeed.”

Another big performer Wednesday was Andrew Suscreba (left) of Clifton, New Jersey, whose experience this week has been the opposite of Williams.

Suscreba, 25-year-old right-hander and former collegiate bowler at William Paterson, experienced a couple of hiccups and challenges with ball reaction Tuesday on the way to a 987 opening round on the fresh oil pattern, but he bounced back Wednesday with a 1,176 effort on the burn, the highest block of the day. He is eighth after two rounds with a 2,163 total.

Despite finishing the first day of competition tied for 128th place, Suscreba feels his strategy is sound, and he expects to see a better result when he bowls on the fresh again in Thursday’s third round.

“Today in practice, I came out and tried every ball I didn’t try yesterday, hoping to find something that worked, and I did,” said Suscreba, who is making this third Masters appearance.

“I’m feeling much better after today and looking forward to tomorrow. I’m going to go with the same game plan on the fresh because I feel like I had a good look early, and again when I moved left in game three. I just have to change to a better ball after game three, and I think I can finish strong.”

Unlike a maze, escape room or Rubik’s Cube, where the process is relatively defined and the endpoint is clear, the Masters puzzle is two-tiered.

Success in the initial part of the event, 15 games of qualifying, is rewarded with a new challenge – three-game one-on-one matches, where total pinfall determines the winner.

Asking each of the 360 players in the field how they approached the challenge might reveal 360 different strategies based on their individual strengths, weaknesses and preferences, though their versatility clearly can be measured on the tournament leaderboard.

For Williams (right), a veteran on the international bowling scene, the initial expectation this week was that the bigger scores would come from the burn squad, and that would be the time to get all you could. That was how he found early success at the 2017 event in Las Vegas.

When that wasn’t exactly the case in Syracuse, his experience and versatility helped him adapt on the fly.

“The lanes were actually quite a bit harder on the burn than I think most people expected them to be, so I was a little anxious this morning with only shooting 48 over on what we thought would be the “easy” squad,” said Williams, a 36-year-old right-hander who finished third at the 2013 Masters.

“I came in and made a decision that I wasn’t going to try and play to the right too much because it seemed like it was very difficult out there. I figured we were going to get into the middle of the lane anyway, so I might as well be there to start with, so I wouldn’t miss the transition.”

Qualifying at the Oncenter Convention Center continues Thursday at 8 a.m. Eastern, and 15-game pinfall totals will determine the match-play field. The top 63 players will join Belmonte in the double-elimination bracket, where three-game total pinfall determines who advances.

Match play will take place Friday and Saturday and determine the five players for the championship stepladder.

As the defending champion, Belmonte is guaranteed the No. 64 spot in the bracket, but bowling qualifying gives him a chance to improve his seeding, as well as get a feel for the bowling center and oil pattern.

The Australian two-hander is seeking his fifth Masters title since 2013 and record-tying 10th career major victory. PBA Tour star Pete Weber and the late Earl Anthony share the record.

All qualifying and match play rounds of the Masters will be covered live on Xtra Frame, the PBA’s online bowling channel. For subscription and schedule information click here.

For complete Masters results click here.

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