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Kayla Crawford has seemingly thrived as a competitive bowler almost since the first time she was able to lift a ball.

Michaela Kelly has blossomed as a competitor at the collegiate level.

Together, the only seniors in the lineup for the fourth-ranked St. Ambrose women’s bowling team hope to lead the Fighting Bees to a memorable conclusion to their college careers this week at the Intercollegiate Team Championships.

Tournament play in Dayton, Ohio, begins today with singles competition that includes the Bees’ Megan Hess and Nate Stubler while both the St. Ambrose men’s and women’s teams begin play in the national tournament for the second straight year on Thursday.

“There isn’t a better place to be right now than at the national tournament,’’ said Crawford, a United Township graduate from Silvis. “This is what we’ve been working toward all season.’’

Kelly, a Bettendorf graduate, believes the Bees are positioned for success.

“We’ve had a good year as a team, both the guys and our team, and we’re looking forward to keeping it going at nationals,’’ Kelly said.

Both St. Ambrose teams won sectional championships for the first time ever last month in Smyrna, Tennessee, building on successes throughout the season.

Crawford has averaged a score of 192.89 in games this season, while Kelly carries an average of 188.9 into the national tournament.

They have helped lead the Bees to six first-place finishes and a pair of runner-up efforts as a team in 11 tournaments this season.

“Overall, we have a fairly young team, but Kayla and Michaela have provided us with some terrific leadership,’’ St. Ambrose coach Eric Littig said. “They’ve helped get us back to nationals and do some good things in big tournaments. Six championships in a season including a sectional title is a great accomplishment.’’

Crawford said the Fighting Bees have hopes to build on that success.

“We have high hopes,’’ she said. “Having been through it before last season, we feel like we can go there and compete with the best teams in the country.’’

Kelly expects it to be a collaborative effort.

“It has been all season. We’re there for each other and have been,’’ Kelly said. “We’ve been doing some new stretching routines before we compete to get ready and the conditioning work we’ve put in has been game changing.’’

Kelly and Crawford have been lineup regulars throughout their college careers for St. Ambrose, becoming close friends and roommates.

Both grew up in the Quad-Cities but did not really become acquainted until college.

“I knew of Kayla, had heard of her and how good of a bowler she was in high school, but I didn’t really know her until college,’’ Kelly said. “When I think back, we’ve come a long way to get to where we are now. The time has gone by fast, but we’ve become good teammates and friends.’’

Crawford said the pair has worked to help younger players on the Bees’ roster adjust to the collegiate level.

“It is an adjustment, a different level of competition, and I think we’ve done what we can to help our teammates out and bring the team together,’’ Crawford said. “It’s been exciting to accomplish what we have so far this season.’’

Watching the Fighting Bees progress into one of the nation’s top teams during a season which stretches from October through April has been rewarding.

Kelly said the growth of the team following early-season success that included beating a number of highly-regarded NCAA programs has been an enjoyable experience.

“Those tournaments showed everybody what potential existed, and I feel like we have all built off of that,’’ she said. “We’ve developed a good team chemistry, the best of any team I’ve been a part of, and I feel like we’re helping leave this program in a good place heading into the future.’’

Crawford plans to pursue professional opportunities in the sport once her collegiate career ends. Kelly will sample that as well this summer.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid,’’ said Crawford, who plans to bowl in five professional tournaments this summer.

“I’ve always dreamed about being on the women’s pro tour and I want to see what I can do with it and where it can lead. I’m excited about the possibilities.’’

Kelly will compete in the United States Bowling Congress Queens Tournament in May in Wichita, Kansas, a tournament that will likely guide her future plans in the sport.

“It’s an exciting time, but for now the focus is on the nationals and doing everything we can to finish as strong as we can in our last college tournament,’’ Kelly said.

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