PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio – When Stephanie Zavala of Downey, California, decided to become a member of the Professional Women’s Bowling Association, she listed winning the PWBA Rookie of the Year award as her top goal.
It didn’t take long for Zavala to become a front-runner for the award in the 2021 season after capturing her first career PWBA Tour title Saturday at the PWBA Greater Cleveland Open.
Zavala defeated Bryanna Coté of Tucson, Arizona, in the championship match at Yorktown Lanes, 247-216, to claim the title in just her third tournament as a tour member.
The victory, broadcast live on BowlTV.com, earned Zavala the $10,000 top prize.
After an excellent start to the title tilt, Coté finished the match first, with a chance to roll 248 to force Zavala to toss all three strikes in her final frame to tie the match. Coté rolled a strike in the ninth frame but left a 3-6 combination and missed the spare to give Zavala a chance to mark in the final stanza for the win.
Zavala stepped up in her final frame and calmly struck on her first shot to become the sixth different champion of the 2021 PWBA Tour season.
“This feels incredible,” said Zavala, who was a member of Team USA and Junior Team USA in 2017. “My heart was beating out of my chest. I put myself in that position. I knew I wanted to finish, and I wanted to be that last one on the approach. So, I just took a deep breath and said, ‘hit, smack, post your shot, everything’s going to be all right.’”
Zavala entered the match as the No. 1 seed after posting a six-game block of 1,484 during the fourth qualifying round to surge ahead of Coté, who previously held the lead. It was the highest block by any competitor during that round. Coté, the 2021 ITRC Classic champion, led three of the four qualifying rounds and was looking to become the first two-time winner this season.
She began the match with a spare, followed by three consecutive strikes, and looked to be in firm control.
After a strike to open her first career championship round appearance, Zavala left a 2-8-10 split on the right lane in the second frame, the lane she chose to finish on as the top seed. Although it was early in the game, it was a key moment because the inexperienced Zavala could’ve folded and allowed Coté to create an insurmountable lead.
Instead, the 24-year-old right-hander followed with a strike and a spare before rolling five consecutive strikes to force the possibility of a tie. Zavala’s maturity, despite her age, was on display, and she used her previous experiences to keep her calm and turn the negative into a positive.
“If you would’ve asked about a year ago, I would’ve said, ‘oh, no it’s over in the second frame,’” said Zavala, who competed collegiately for Sam Houston State. “After that, I told myself to get the count, sit down and take a minute and just stay with it. I liked that lane for a reason. I had to trust myself and my ability. Anything can happen, so make it work, and I did.”
Zavala was set to compete on the PWBA Tour in 2020, but the tour was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although heartbroken she wasn’t able to compete, Zavala quickly went back to work. That additional preparation just may have been the difference on Saturday.
“It broke my heart a little bit, and I think it did that for a lot of girls that were getting ready,” Zavala said. “You either take that and say it’s not meant to be or say, ‘hey, I have one more year to perfect my craft, and I can work harder and be more prepared when that time comes.’ That’s exactly what I did. I practiced a lot. I feel I was more prepared this year, than if I had started last year.”
Coté, the No. 2 seed, called her performance last week at the PWBA Lincoln Open “unacceptable.” This week was a different story as Coté was back in the stepladder finals with a chance to win her third career title.
“If I look at my performance from start to finish, it was pretty solid,” Coté said. “I can’t say it was a bad week. I definitely wanted to win, but I’m not disappointed I got second. It’s weird. I thought I would be disappointed, mad and frustrated, but I’m not. I’m content with it. Stephanie bowled amazing, and I bowled amazing this week, too. Either one of us could have won, so hats off to her. She did what she had to do to take the title.”
Coté advanced to the title match after defeating Germany’s Birgit Noreiks in the semifinal, 259-226. Noreiks, the No. 4 seed, made her first championship-round appearance of 2021 and was in search of her second career PWBA title.
Noreiks opened the stepladder finals by defeating No. 3 seed Danielle McEwan of Stony Point, New York, 247- 206. McEwan, who moved from 39th to fourth place during Round 2 on Friday, was making her second championship-round appearance of the season.
The 76-player field bowled 12 games Friday, before the first cut to the top 32 athletes. Advancers bowled an additional six-game block Saturday morning, with the top 12 competing in a final six-game round to determine the four bowlers for the stepladder finals, based on 24-game pinfall totals.
The 2021 PWBA Tour season, which features 20 events, will head next to the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, for the USBC Queens. The first major of the season will take place May 12-18.