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CLAYTON, Mo. (April 11, 2018) – North Carolina A&T freshman Ana Olaya, the rookie of the year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, walked into Wednesday’s press conference at the 2018 NCAA Women’s Bowling Championship Tournament at Tropicana Lanes smiling as she anticipated her moment to speak to the media. When she stepped up to the podium where a table stood with a nameplate that had written in big letters “Ana Olaya” and in smaller letters underneath, North Carolina A&T State University. Then she was asked her first question and she left no doubt about how thrilled she was to be in the moment.

“I feel like I’m still dreaming. I’ve grown up watching the NCAA logo, so to actually see my name next to it, it’s crazy,” said Olaya, a native of Bogota’, Columbia. “I feel like I haven’t come to grips with everything we’ve accomplished so far. To do it all my freshman year, I’m just excited to see what is in store for us this weekend.”

The Aggies face No. 3 Arkansas State in the first round 10 a.m. (EST) Thursday on's live stream. Olaya and her Aggie teammates have faced Arkansas State. They have defeated Nebraska. The Aggies know what is like to compete against defending national champion McKendree.

N.C. A&T (73-48), the No. 6 seed at the tournament, has reached such a status in bowling to where no team participating this week will be new to them other than No. 8 seed Lincoln Memorial. The Aggies are one of the best teams in the nation and have faced the other six throughout the 2017-18 season. But while the teams are not foreign to them, the stage is very new Olaya, her two freshman teammates and her three sophomore teammates.

The Aggies are coming off a big-stage moment when they won their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title in 14 years as they dispensed with the long drought live on ESPN 3. The stage they will be on April 12-14 might as well be called Broadway because if they perform well enough, they will be crowned national champions.

“The great thing about bringing a young team here is that they really don’t have any expectations other than being overjoyed about playing for a national championship,” said N.C. A&T coach Kim Terrell-Kearney, who led Delaware State to the NCAA tournament when she was the head coach there in 2009. “There’s no fear. They’re ready to show up and battle.”

While bringing in a fearless group of youngsters is a positive, there is value in having played for a national championship before, Terrell-Kearney added. The Aggies have a great idea of what the field looks like and how much bowling talent has assembled in St. Louis for the week, they do not have any experience in taking down the best of the best to claim the mantle of best team in the nation.

“As a coach, you get them as prepared as much as you can, but there are some intangibles about being here and winning her you can’t teach,” said Terrell-Kearney. “They have no idea how big the moment can get, but this group has a will to win that I can’t teach. When the moment is there, they show up. They don’t shy away. That’s what I’m hoping happens this week.”

If N.C. A&T can come away with a title this week at Tropicana Lanes playing with three freshmen, three sophomores and a senior, a team built for the future would suddenly turn into a team built to dominate over the next several years. The Aggies are a team bowling its best at the right time. They were 43-39 after the Ladyjack Classic in mid-February. They are 30-9 since despite what Terrell-Kearney considers a disappointing performance at USBC sectionals the second week of March.

“I think it was eye-opening. We needed to be better,” said Terrell-Kearney. “We needed to work harder. It was a gift to look ourselves in the mirror and decide who we wanted to be going forward. Although it was disappointing it was pretty critical in putting us in the postseason.”

 One bowler who is familiar with the stage and who shared the podium with Olaya on Wednesday is lone senior Brianna Boze. Boze was on the 2016 team that advanced to the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid as the eighth seed. Back then the Aggies had All-Americans named Emily Strombeck and MacKenzie Robinson with Kristin Shinn and Kori Smith also at the top of the lineup.

In 2018, Boze will play an integral part in N.C. A&T’s success.

“She is embracing that,” said Terrell-Kearney about Boze’s role. “I really think she is enjoying herself. It’s been quite a turnaround for her in her career at A&T. I’m excited she gets to experience having the ball in her hand in key spots with the national championship on the line.”

Olaya leads the team with a 198.58 but freshman Cameron Strombeck was a rookie of the year candidate for much of the season as well as she bowled superbly in the best of seven championship round in Bakers play against Maryland Eastern Shore at the MEAC tournament last month. Candyce Bradley posted a 187.03 average as a freshman and sophomore Tyra Merritt stepped up big for the Aggies at the MEAC tournament. Two more talented sophomores in Mia Pope and Kayli Christ provide even more firepower.

“You can only find so many words to describe the feeling of making it to the national championship tournament,” said Terrell-Kearney. “Regardless of how we play this week, there will be this burning desire from our ladies to get back here. Once you’ve done it, once you’ve seen what it is like trying to be the best team in the country, it drives you because you want that opportunity again.”