Four contenders remain as 2020 OC Bracket Challenge reaches overall semifinals

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When we created the 2020 OC Bracket Challenge, the goal was to interact with the OC bowlers and fans, stir up some conversation and keep the USBC Open Championships fresh in everyone's minds.

The online discussions, emails and phone calls have been passionate and overwhelming - and awesome. We appreciate everyone's love for the sport and OC, and we look forward to creating more memories in the future.

Each quadrant of the OC Bracket Challenge allowed us to explore a different aspect of the tournament's history and competitors. The winner of each section - the best of eight formidable contenders - now must go up against the other victors in the bracket's overall semifinals.

In the Record Moments quadrant, young left-hander Matt McNiel and his 2,326 all-events total from the 2010 OC in Reno, Nevada, outlasted three of the OC's other current records, both individual and team.

To win the quadrant, McNiel's nine-game performance of a decade ago edged the tournament's longest-standing mark, the 10,425 Team All-Events total posted by Pollard's Bowl in 1996.

In the Participation and Milestones portion of the bracket, we included some of the most significant milestones, innovations and traditions, ultimately finding out what an important role Center Aisle has played in the history of the Open Championships.

Since Center Aisle was introduced in Seattle in 1954, millions of hopeful bowlers have paraded to their lanes in front of family, fans and friends. One day each year, Joe Bowler has made his way down Center Aisle to preside over the tournament's opening ceremony. For years, Center Aisle and the breathtaking OC venues also were where bowling's best made their entrance into the hall of fame.

While some might consider Center Aisle's march through the bracket as an upset, its place in the overall semifinals makes sense at the same time, too.

In 116 years of OC competition, so many awesome things happened for the first time. Many have been matched or topped in the time since, simply because the sport and event have evolved, or because that's just the nature of things that experience growth and endurance like the world's largest participatory sporting event.

Of the eight accomplishments in the Tournament Firsts section of the OC Bracket Challenge, only one has gone unmatched on the championship lanes, and that's the one that also rolled unbeaten through this portion of the bracket - the first bowler with three 800s at the OC.

The owner of the unmatched mark again is McNiel, who rolled 800s in three consecutive years - 806 in 2010, 822 in 2011 and 847 in 2012.

Depending how you're interpreting the contenders in the bracket and whether or not you've been able to separate the accomplishment itself from the person who did it, yes, there is the potential for a McNiel vs. McNiel bracket final - technically. But, the intention was/is for you to see just the all-events record and just the accomplishment of three 800s. It just so happens both were done by the same standout.

Finally, the head-to-head section of the bracket.

Obviously, narrowing a list of millions of names to just eight top performers was incredibly hard, but those who made it represented a mix of eras, success and gender. Among them, pioneers and trailblazers, record setters and three of the OC's winningest champions.

After some close calls along the way, Bill Lillard Sr. earned the right to advance.

He is the owner of the highest career pinfall total at the OC (124,087), is tied for second on the wins list with eight titles and is one of just seven bowlers to participate in the event 68 or more times (68). There is a three-way tie for the participation record with 71 years and a four-way tie for second on the list with 68.

As we celebrate each quadrant winner and success against similar contenders, it now is time for the best of each class to face off in the overall semifinals.

The goal, of course, is to identify the most significant and influential person, moment, performance or tradition in Open Championships history.

Again, we'll provide the info and insight, but it will be up to the voters to narrow the remaining field from four to two to ONE!

We've got details for each semifinal match, along with insight and picks from the OC public relations staff and some special guests.

Remember to visit the official USBC Open Championships Facebook page each day to cast your votes for each match!

SEMIFINAL MATCH 1
Matt McNiel's 2,326 vs. Center Aisle


Here we are again, needing to pick between performance and tradition.

In 2010, Matt McNiel rolled a 2,326 all-events total at the National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nevada, to top the year-old all-events record of 2,321. The mark has lasted a decade, with 2,273 being the highest score during that time.

In 2013, the OC featured two oil patterns for the first time, along with fresh oil for every single squad. Did the change make it less likely someone will challenge McNiel's record, or is the number, like all records, eventually going to get beaten?

Center Aisle has proven to be one of the OC's most noteworthy traditions, offering a lifetime of memories to generations of participants.

The question is, is what Center Aisle has meant to the Open Championships MORE significant and memorable in the big picture than the head-turning performance McNiel had in 2010?

STAFF PICK

Matt Cannizzaro (OC PR Manager since 2005):
Center Aisle
Why: Without a doubt, Matt McNiel's performance was incredible to watch, right down to his legs giving out after his final shot, even before he realized exactly what he'd accomplished.

But, what Center Aisle has meant to the Open Championships is the far-and-away winner here.

Records likely (maybe) will get beaten, but nothing can replace the butterflies and goosebumps that come when the curtain opens to begin each march down Center Aisle. No score (outside of my own) could mean more than the genuine emotion and tears that flowed out of Sylvester Thiel after he walked onto the OC approach for the 71st time. I can go on, but you get the idea.

GUEST PICKS

Duane Hagen (OC Tournament Director since 2008):
Center Aisle
Why: This is an established tradition that impacts all participants.

Fran Piraino (longtime bowling writer and historian in Syracuse area): 2,326
Why: McNiel has had a pretty nice showing in the OC Bracket Challenge. I may not have voted for his AE record in each round, but I am this time.

I have to say I'm very surprised as to the support Center Aisle has had to make to the semifinals. That just goes to show tradition reigns supreme for many OC participants. But, McNiel's milestone is more significant.

Bob Johnson (Bowlers Journal International): 2,326
Why: This pick may surprise some, but I'm going with Matt McNiel's stellar performance. Even though it spanned only nine games, it represents the current status of the sport and the future of the tournament.

I would have voted differently if Center Aisle were still being used at EVERY Open Championships, but since it isn't, the nod here goes to the present and the future over the past.

Bob Hart (USBC Hall of Famer/reaching 65 years of OC participation in 2020): Center Aisle
Why: Center Aisle was introduced in 1954 and has remained part of the Open Championships tradition for 67 years. All participants share the excitement and experience of being part of the Open Championships event and being recognized by being presented on the Center Aisle.

Doug Shellum (Open Championships and Minnesota bowling historian, 31-time OC participant): Center Aisle
Why: Celebrating the wins of each quadrant transitions to the time where one of these must move on. Which one?

If I pick a nine-game performance that is fantastic on the challenging conditions at the Open Championships, it could possibly mean being against the "first to three 800s," if that one is lucky enough to get by the phenomenal record of Mr. Bill Lillard Sr.

We could have a championship match of McNiel vs. McNiel. That would be really an easy one for me, then McNiel would win either way.

Now, which one has impacted the history of the Open Championships the most? I pick Center Aisle to move on to the finals, as Center Aisle has had almost EVERY Open Championships participant walk down it since 1954! Young, old, first time or 71st time. I get butterflies every time, still.

MATCH 2 - PARTICIPATION AND MILESTONES
Bill Lillard Sr. vs. First to three 800s


This is where the bracket and voting get a little tricky.

This match technically may include Bill Lillard Sr. and Matt McNiel, but it's not really a head-to-head match between the two.

The matchup here is Lillard against the accomplishment of three 800s at the OC.

Eventually, McNiel will be considered one of the best to ever compete at the Open Championships, if not already, but he still has a long, long way to go in his career.

It's almost unfair to make the comparison so soon, but, based on the success he's had in just 13 years on the tournament lanes, imagine the kind of numbers McNiel will amass over the next 55 years, which is how long it will take him to match Lillard's participation number.

Right now, the task actually is much clearer than it sounds - which is more significant in the history of the Open Championships - Lillard and his 68 years, eight titles and 124,087 pins or the accomplishment of three 800s at the OC?

STAFF PICK

Matt Cannizzaro:
Lillard
Why: Though I didn't know about Bill Lillard before working at the Open Championships, I quickly learned what an icon he was at the event. I learned many things about his career and success, got to know him personally and was present for a few of his most amazing milestone.

McNiel will get there, having already earned many places in the OC record book. But, in 2020, if ever there was a person whose name and accomplishments are synonymous with what Eagles and the Open Championships mean, it's Bill Lillard Sr.

When I think of the OC, the first things that come to mind are - the venue, the Eagle and Lillard.

GUEST PICKS

Duane Hagen: Lillard
Why: Hands down, there is no other choice.

Fran Piraino: Lillard
Why: Lillard deserves to advance. You can't convince me otherwise. He's among the all-time OC greats, and what he accomplished is legendary.

Bob Johnson: Lillard
Why: Hey, we can't let it be a McNiel vs. McNiel final. He's a great bowler, but he can't be in two places at once.

Lillard's lifetime record is awe-inspiring, not only because of the pinfall total he amassed, but for the average he maintained over all those years - including many years when strikes weren't as easy to come by as they are today.

Bob Hart: Lillard
Why: I believe a lifetime career of outstanding performance and dedication to the Open Championships for 68 years is very SPECIAL! This gentleman's record is a part of the tournament history and will be honored for years to come.

Doug Shellum: Lillard
Why: Bill Lillard Sr. and his illustrious career, or the first and only bowler with three 800s at the Open Championships? Let's step back for a second...

Matt McNiel's performances are nothing but spectacular, and I would say envied by all. Think about all the big-name players that have competed on the OC conditions and don't have an 800 or even a 700, for that matter.

What Matt has done by throwing three of them is beyond comprehensible. Throw in Matt's all-events total of 2,326 in 2010, which was only the second time anyone topped the 2,300 all-events mark! Incredible!!!

Now, looking at the OC career of Bill Lillard Sr. is just crazy! He bowled in more OC tournaments than I am alive, 68, to be exact (and consecutive too)! One of 14 bowlers with 65 or more championship appearances, knocked down the most pins and won eight Eagles, with a record of four in the 1956 event.

Now, who's accomplishment made a bigger statement at the storied tournament? Both are true winners, but I move Bill Lillard Sr. on to face the winner of Match 1.

For more information about the Open Championships or to register for 2021, click HERE.