McNiel back on top at USBC Open Championships

EL PASO, Texas - The scores Matt McNiel of Prior Lake, Minnesota, has rolled at the United States Bowling Congress Open Championships over the last six years almost can be described as mind-boggling, and the three-time titlist was at it again this weekend at the El Paso Convention Center.

The 29-year-old left-hander turned in a consistent performance to put himself in position for a third Regular All-Events title since 2010. He rolled sets of 765 in singles, 734 in doubles and 727 in team to move to the top of the standings with a 2,226 all-events total. Rob Gotchall of Clarksville, Tennessee, previously held the lead with 2,181.

"The last game, I made a ball change," said McNiel, who is sixth in Regular Singles this year. "I took a small step right and knew I needed to open up my angles through the front and open up the lanes. My fill ball in the second game was fantastic, and my eyes got pretty big because it looked really, really good. It gave me a lot of confidence going into the third game. If I could keep it on line, keep it close and make a good shot, I was going to get 10. That ball matched up so well with what we did to the lanes. We set them up perfectly."

McNiel's exciting run at the USBC Open Championships started with a record score of 2,326 on the way to the win in 2010, and he followed that with all-events totals of 2,241, 2,202, 2,099 and 2,034. His average over his last 54 tournament games is more than 243, while he has maintained a career average of 231 in nine consecutive appearances.

Sunday's performance in El Paso also included a run at the Regular Doubles lead, with McNiel and Charles Vashaw of Deephaven, Minnesota, eventually settling into second place with a 1,403 total.

Both southpaws needed to double in the final frame to surpass the 1,409 posted earlier in the week by Mark Sleeper Jr. of Kaufman, Texas, and two-hander Anthony Simonsen of Princeton, Texas, but Vashaw came up short on his second offering.

Vashaw, a 2002 and 2006 Team All-Events winner, teamed with McNiel to claim the Regular Doubles crown at the 2012 event in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. That victory included one of McNiel's three 800 series in Open Championships competition (847) and lifted him to his second all-events win in three years. The year in-between, he finished third.

"Doubles was one of those things," McNiel said. "I made a couple of bad shots. Chuck made a couple of bad shots. We could've snapped off doubles, but we didn't. But both Chuck and I were able to lean on each other. Our teammates were there for us, and they helped us reset. That was a great doubles set."

For McNiel, who shot 299 and 806 in singles in 2010 and 300 and 822 in doubles in 2011, the Open Championships is the highlight of every tournament season and time he gets to spend with teammates he considers family. He grew up watching them, hoping to someday be invited to join them, and their respect for one another leads to some very emotional experiences on the sport's biggest stage.

The group includes six-time Open Championships titlist and USBC Hall of Famer Todd Savoy and 30-year lifetime average leader Sam Lantto, who was inducted into the USBC Hall of Fame last week.

"It gets me teary-eyed just thinking about it," said McNiel, who recently helped Wichita State to a win at the 2015 XBowling Intercollegiate Team Championships. "It means so much because these guys work so incredibly hard. This is our big tournament of the year. They give everything they can to me, and, likewise, I give everything I can to them. They're family. I've grown up with them, and to experience this with them, is absolute pure joy and extremely overwhelming."

McNiel and his Linds Lakers teammates found their way into third place in Regular Team live on BowlTV on Saturday night with a 3,297 total and carried that momentum into Sunday as they cruised into fifth place in Team All-Events with 9,614.

Lantto added a 1,923 all-events effort for Linds Lakers and was followed by Luke Voaklander, who owns a 300 game at the Open Championships (1,865), two-time Team All-Events winner John Eiss (1,859) and Savoy (1,741).

Junior Team USA Support 1 of Las Vegas leads Team All-Events with 10,064, while Gotchall's Team NABR of West Henrietta, New York, tops the Regular Team standings with 3,368.

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