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EAST GREENSBORO – The beginning of any season is difficult.

But for the North Carolina A&T bowling team, the start of the 2019-20 season is going to be challenging. 

The Aggies travel to Harahan, La., for the Allstate Sugar Bowl Collegiate Bowling Invitational, hosted by Tulane University from Friday-Sunday that features five teams ranked in the National Tenpin Coaches Association (NTCA) preseason top-10. Three of those teams are in the top-5.

Those early contests will be needed because there is a chance the Aggies will face some of those teams in the NCAA tournament. The NCAA expanded the field for the 2020 tournament. There will be four regional sites with four teams in each region to give the field a total of 16 teams. The region winners will advance to the semifinals in Allen Park, Mich., April 9-11. 

Last season two teams bowled their way to the championship site in two play-in contests to give the championship site a total of eight teams. 

“We are jumping right in there, which is what we should do to see where we stack up against the other teams that we will try to beat at the end of the year,” coach Kim Terrell-Kearney said.  “There are at least five top-10 teams in the field.  It will be tough.”

The 2019 national champion Stephen F. Austin will be there along with Vanderbilt, the No. 1 in the nation for most of last season. Vanderbilt begins this season at No. 1, while Stephen F. Austin ranks third. The two schools squared off last season in the NCAA championship game. Sam Houston State is No. 5 in the country while defending MEAC champion Maryland Eastern Shore is seventh and the Aggies are eighth.

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Preseason ranked teams such as Lincoln Memorial (13th), Tulane (14th), Louisiana Tech (17th) and MEAC foe Alabama-Birmingham (19th). Texas Southern received votes in the NTCA poll.  Other teams competing are Alabama A&M, Jackson State, Southern, Tusculum and Valparaiso. 

The tournament begins 10:30 a.m., Friday with baker matches and continues Saturday at 9:30 a.m., with five team matches. Sunday concludes the tournament starting at 9:30 a.m., with three best 4-out-7 baker matches followed by the awards ceremony at 1:40 p.m.

“Having been practicing for the last couple of months, everybody is excited and anxious to get started and to see where we stand against some better teams in the country,” said Terrell-Kearney who is in her third season. “It’s pretty strong field down there in Tulane.  It will give us a better understanding if we’ve done all the right things in the last few months.”

N.C. A&T returns 11 of the 12 bowlers from last season’s team that nearly defeated UMES in the MEAC championship game losing by eight pins in the final game.

“There’s certainly some comfortability with bringing back the 11 players that were here last year,” Terrell-Kearney said.  “Everybody’s on the same page and are aware as to what is necessary to be a national champion.  Everybody has an understanding of what the talent level looks like across the country and aware of what needs to happen and what we need to do.”

Junior Ana Olaya led the team last season with 10,090 total pins. She was second on the team in average (190.38). Olaya was tied for second on the team with fellow junior Cameron Strombeck with 19 matches of 200-plus games. Strombeck was second on the team with 8,554 total pins for an average of 190.09, which was third on the team.

Sophomore Ericka Quesada led the team with an average of 199.79 and recorded the third most pins with 7,592. She also bowled 16 games of 38 of 200-plus.  Sophomore Pamela Warr was fourth on the team with 7,221 total pins, an average of 185.15 and bowled nine games of 200-plus. 

Olaya and Quesada made the five-member 2019 All-MEAC preseason team. They were the only non-seniors on the team. N.C. A&T was picked to finish second by UMES in the preseason order of prediction as voted on by head coaches and sports information directors.

Last season, the Aggies finished the regular season tied for first with a 15-3 MEAC record and recorded the most wins among MEAC teams with 78 as they finished 78-45 (.634). The Aggies bowled 22 games last season of 1,000-plus.

Quesada, Olaya and Strombeck all competed over the summer.  Strombeck finished third at the 2019 Junior Gold Championships in Allen Park, Mich., in the 20-and-under girls division. Strombeck was 31 pins shy of making the national team. Olaya and Quesada both finished in the top-8 of the Masters bracket at the Pan American Bowling Confederation Youth Championships 21-under. Olaya competed for Colombia and Quesada competed for Costa Rica.

“I’m pleased with the work that the players have put in during the summer,” Terrell-Kearney said.  “I think that everybody got stronger and looks better.  That’s allowed us to hit the ground running as we started our preseason practices into our official practice.”