When the cheer of “OO-RAH, Grandma!” rings out at bowling alleys where the teams from St. Ambrose are competing, it doesn’t mean a group of nearby U.S. Marines are preparing to storm the snack bar.
Instead, it is just the Fighting Bees’ way of celebrating another strike or critical spare picked up by the first female in the program’s three-year history to win an individual championship in the sport.
Aretha Williams accomplished that feat last month at the Clarke Conference Invitational, the program’s conference meet, and she will take her 183 average to the U.S. Bowling Congress Intercollegiate Sectional beginning Friday in Fairview Heights, Ill.
Her average ranks 15th in the nation among first-year collegiate competitors, but Williams isn’t your typical college student.
She carries a 4.0 grade-point average in accounting, earning a spot on the Dean’s List after taking 15 hours of classes during the fall semester.
A 1990 graduate of Davenport North, Williams also is a 39-year-old non-traditional student who returned to college full time last fall after the closure of the R.R. Donnelly plant in Eldridge and also happens to be the proud grandmother of two grandsons, ages 11/2 and 21/2.
“That’s where the ‘OO-RAH, Grandma!’ cheer comes from,” she said. “I take it in stride. There are cheers for everybody. We’re all in it together.”
Williams has enjoyed her unique collegiate athletics experience, probably even more than she anticipated.
“The generation gap is not as big as I thought it would be, and if there is one difference, it’s that this generation certainly doesn’t hesitate saying anything that is on their mind,” Williams said. “It’s been a lot of fun. They keep me laughing.”
St. Ambrose coach Donna Lawrence initially wondered how teammates would interact with Williams and how she would fit in with the team on overnight road trips.
“There were some things I was curious to see how it would all play out. How would it work out sharing a room with 19-year-olds on our road trips, that type of thing,” Lawrence said. “I was interested to see how it would go, but it’s all been a positive for us.”
With high school- and college-age children of her own, Williams fit right in.
“I am the one falling asleep in the hotel room with the TV on at 10 o’clock at night, and I usually hear about that, but I just roll with it,” Williams said. “Being part of the team has been a good experience for me.”
Lawrence said Williams’ success in the classroom and in competition has allowed her to become a role model of sorts for younger bowlers on the roster who still are adjusting to the college routine.
“She’s shown everybody that life can take you in a number of directions, but if your priorities are in order, you can have success in whatever endeavors you choose to attempt,” Lawrence said.
Those sentiments extend beyond the other 40 athletes on the Fighting Bees’ roster.
Williams hopes her two children understand that they will never be too old to pursue their dreams.
“They see me going back to school, competing on a team and being part of things that usually are done by people half my age,” Williams said. “But, you know what, you can do anything you set your mind to, anything, and I hope they see that, too.”
Williams did not compete in athletics in high school.
“I was a pom pom girl, but that was about the extent of it,” she said.
She initially enrolled at Simpson College out of high school, but a pregnancy brought Williams home to the Quad-Cities.
She began bowling at age 26, joining a team of co-workers at Carpetland as part of a recreational league team.
“We were bowling just to do something for fun together,” Williams said. “I was horrible when I started — really horrible — but I fell in love with the game.”
A decade later, she found herself bowling in leagues three nights each week and competing in area tournaments.
“It’s become a passion of mine. I enjoy the competition, and over time, I’ve gotten a little better.”
Williams was taken online classes as a part-time student at Ashford University a little more than a year ago when she first discovered that she would still be eligible to compete at the collegiate level if she became a full-time student.
Once her job in quality control ended with the closing of the R.R. Donnelly facility in August, Williams picked up a part-time position at Oak Helm Partners in Davenport and decided to return to college fulltime.
“They’ve worked around my schedule, and it has worked well,” Williams said.
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She now finds herself sitting in classrooms with students almost half her age, including a few teammates.
“When Donnelly closed, it gave me a chance to step back and think a bit about where I was and what I wanted to do, and that led me to Ambrose,” she said.
Once enrolled last fall, she participated in tryouts for the bowling team and made the squad, participating in the Fighting Bees’ three-times-a-week practices and then competing on the weekends.
She said her season started slowly, but she has seen her scores improve deeper into the season.
It took her some time to adjust to the nuances of college bowling, where teams frequently cheer on teammates and the noise from one alley to the next is at a level that doesn’t happen often in a league setting.
“You have to be able to focus and concentrate if you want to be good here. I’ve learned that as I’ve went on along,” Williams said. “Early on, I didn’t throw the ball as well as I knew I could, but working with (Lawrence), it’s come around a bit and I’m starting to compete the way I know I can. It’s just a matter of putting your mind to it.”
That’s something this grandmother has no trouble accomplishing.
Ambrose men, women excel
Both men’s and women’s bowling teams from St. Ambrose will compete this weekend in the U.S. Bowling Congress Intercollegiate Sectionals at Fairview Heights, Ill., the next step in what has been a record-setting season for the Fighting Bees’ third-year programs.
The St. Ambrose men rank 15th nationally and the women are 21st heading into the start of postseason competition.
“Our programs are young, but we’ve been pretty consistent,” Bees coach Donna Lawrence said. “The success we’ve had has helped us recruit, and we’ve built on that from one year to the next.”
Beginning Friday in the two-day sectional hosted by the St. Clair Bowl, the Bees will play 32 Baker games each day with the top four teams based on total pinfall advancing to the USBC Intercollegiate Team Championships on April 19-21 at Lincoln, Neb.
St. Ambrose is familiar with the house, competing in both the SI Elite Classic and the National Collegiate Team Match Games there earlier this season.
Kyle Anderson, a freshman from Lockport, Ill., who was named the newcomer of the year in the Midwest Collegiate Conference, became the first men’s bowler in St. Ambrose history to win an individual title when he took top honors at the SI Elite Classic there.
Anderson and Bryan Thompson, a junior from Chicago Brother Rice, rank 55th and 32nd in the nation, respectively, with averages of 203 and 207.