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Clutch finishes help determine U15 champions at 2018 Junior Gold Championships

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Silas Lira of Tampa, Florida, and Annalise OBryant of Ball Ground, Georgia, each delivered in their final frame to capture the 15-and-under title in their respective division at the 2018 Junior Gold Championships presented by the Brands of Ebonite International.

Lira, a 15-year-old right-hander, defeated Brandon Bonta of Wichita, Kansas, 197-181, in the boys stepladder final at the International Training and Research Center, and OBryant, a 14-year-old right-hander, bested Caitlyn Chapman of Waxahachie, Texas, 201-197, to claim the girls title.

The championship round in each division aired nationally Tuesday on CBS Sports Network.

In the boys championship match, both players struggled to figure out the right lane, but Bonta, the top seed for the stepladder, was able to connect for a strike in the ninth frame. Bonta then struck on his first delivery in the 10th frame, but he left a 9 pin on his second attempt. He converted the spare, which forced Lira, who also had a strike in the ninth frame, to strike on his first shot to have the opportunity to win.

Lira had not hit the head pin in his first four attempts on the right lane in the title tilt, but he made the correct adjustment and rolled a pair of strikes in the final frame to secure the victory.

“It was my first time on TV, so I tried to just repeat my process and execute,” Lira said. “I felt like I got in my own head on the right lane, but I was able to calm down and make a great shot in the 10th.”

Lira’s resilience also showed during his run to the stepladder finals. After struggling in the fourth round of qualifying and starting slowly in the advancers round, he was able to make a run to put himself in position to move on to match play, where he earned the No. 15 seed.

“I’m feeling very happy and proud of myself for making it this far,” Lira said. “This is a huge tournament that’s very challenging and difficult, and I was motivated by my coaches, Lucy Sandelin and Randy Stoughton, and my mom, who helps to put me in tournaments like this to gain experience each and every day.”

To earn his spot in the title match, Lira staged a late rally against Michael Harmon Jr. of Rockledge, Florida, on the way to a 219-174 victory. Lira was down in the semifinal for the first six frames but rolled five consecutive strikes, starting in the seventh frame, to seize the momentum.

In the girls title match, OBryant, the top seed, gained the lead in the fourth frame after Chapman left and was unable to convert the 4-6-7-8-10 split. OBryant maintained the advantage by converting four consecutive spares heading into the 10th frame, where she needed to record a 17-pin fill to shut out Chapman.

OBryant rolled a strike on her first shot and sealed the victory with a nine count on her second shot. She covered the spare to finish with a clean game in her television debut.

“I’m feeling very excited,” OBryant said. “I’m still a little nervous and shaking because I can’t believe it. I’m just really excited and proud that I finally did it.”

OBryant nearly advanced to the championship match of the 2016 Junior Gold Championships in Indianapolis in the U12 division, finishing in a tie for third place. That close call helped motivate her to continue to work on her game.

The 2018 event featured a different look for the television finals. In previous years, the top two players in each age-based division would meet in the finals in a two-game total-pinfall match to determine the champion.

“I was close in U12 and bowled great, but the other girls bowled better,” OBryant said. “This year, I focused more on spares, because that’s what got me here. Over the years, I’ve also worked on getting more rotation, so that’s helped, too. But spares were the main focus.”

Chapman secured her spot in the championship match on the strength of a late run of strikes to shut out Melanie Hilbert of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, in the semifinal, 218-205. Both players posted clean games in the semifinal, but Chapman was able to roll three consecutive strikes in the ninth and 10th frames to advance.

In addition to the title, Lira and OBryant also earned spots on Junior Team USA’s developmental program in 2019.

Deo Benard of Rio Rancho, New Mexico, and Jaelle Hamman of Jarrell, Texas, also earned spots on the team based on their 26-game qualifying performances.

Benard, one of four bowlers to roll a 300 game at the 2018 event, led qualifying in the U15 boys division. Hamman finished second in U15 girls qualifying, but because Amanda Naujokas of Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, the U15 girls qualifying leader, is not age-eligible for a spot on the developmental team, Hamman earned the spot.

The U15 division at the 2018 event featured 672 boys and 382 girls, who each rolled 16 qualifying games across four bowling centers, before the top 96 boys and top 56 girls moved on to a five-game advancers round.

The top 48 boys and top 32 girls advanced to the final advancers round, with 26-game pinfall totals determining the top 16 to advance in each division to the double-elimination match-play bracket, which featured two-game matches with total pinfall determining the winner.

The Junior Gold Championships features the top youth bowlers in the country seeking national titles in three divisions – 12-and-under, 15-and-under and 20-and-under – and spots on Junior Team USA. Eight centers in the Dallas area hosted qualifying and match-play rounds, and the 2018 event featured a scholarship fund of more than $350,000 and more than 3,800 entries, both tournament records.

The finals of the U12 and U20 divisions also were taped at the ITRC on July 21 for delayed broadcast. The U12 finals aired July 24, and the U20 stepladder will air Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS Sports Network.

The finals of the 2018 USA Bowling National Championships presented by Sixlets also were taped at the ITRC. The U12 finals will air Aug. 14, and the U15 finals will be shown Aug. 21. Both shows also are scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Eastern.

All advancers round and match play leading up to the TV shows were broadcast live on BowlTV.

The city of Dallas and the Dallas Sports Commission were hosts for the 2018 Junior Gold Championships.

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Herbert Bickel

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