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Like probably every bowling fan in America who watched the first stepladder finals show of the U.S. Open on Saturday night, I had trouble believing what I saw.

After Bill O'Neill cruised past rising young star Dan MacLelland 204-150 in the first match of the show on ESPN2, O'Neill appeared on his way to an equally easy win in the second match against Ryan Shafer.

Shafer was as lost as a bowler could be and the defending U.S. Open champion was on cruise control.

Then O'Neill, who is in the discussion for best bowler in the world over the last couple of years, came out of a commercial break with a huge split, then flagged the headpin and missed the spare.

Those consecutive opens gave Shafer a glimmer of hope and when Shafer later made three of the best solid strikes a bowler has ever thrown — considering the circumstances — in the 10th frame, O'Neill was facing a mark-to-win situation in the 10th frame.

And he threw a 4-6-7 split to lose, 193-183.

The look of disbelief on O'Neill's face matched my reaction: I hit rewind on my DVR and watched he final few frames again in an attempt to comprehend what I'd just seen.

O'Neill is an awesome bowler and I'm sure he will shake this off and win again soon: if you bowl long enough on the PBA Tour, everything that can happen will happen eventually. A veteran touring pro told me that once when I was on Tour a quarter century ago and I firmly believe it.

For Shafer, who easily and deservedly beat me out for PBA Rookie of the Year in 1987, it was a perhaps deserved turn of fortune: Ryan is without a doubt the best bowler in PBA history with just four titles, and he has finished second four times and third five times in PBA majors.

He's also vastly misunderstood by many, many people — he's an extremely intelligent guy who usually doesn't sugarcoat things when he says what's on his mind.

Shafer advances to the championship stepladder finals show on ESPN at 2 p.m. Central time Sunday.

The top seed is Hall of Famer and 2008 U.S. Open Champion Norm Duke.

Duke won the final game of match play against Tommy Jones on Saturday to win the top seed and relegate the 2006 U.S. Open champ to second.

Mika Koivuniemi made PBA history by advancing to the TV finals in all four major championships during the 2010-11 season.

The third seed and 2000 U.S. Open champ will bowl Safer in the opening match.

For more details and quotes from Duke heading into Sunday, go to the PBA news release here and here.


Brunswick Zone-Carolier, North Brunswick, N.J., Saturday


(after 50 games, including match play bonus pins; top six advanced to stepladder finals):

1, Norm Duke, Clermont, Fla., 13-10-1, 11,098.

2, Tommy Jones, Greenville, S.C., 11-13, 11,027.

3, Mika Koivuniemi, Hartland, Mich., 15-9, 10,993.

4, Ryan Shafer, Horseheads, N.Y., 15-9, 10,982.

5, Dan MacLelland, Saginaw, Mich., 15-9, 10,920.

6, Bill O'Neill, Southampton, Pa., 10-14, 10,849.

7, Chris Barnes, Double Oak, Texas, 13-10-1, 10,844, $7,000.

8, Brian Valenta, Lockport, Ill., 16-8, 10,823, $6,000.

9, Steve Jaros, Yorkville, Ill., 11-12-1, 10,799, $5,500.

10, Jason Belmonte, Australia, 14-10, 10,783, $5,000.

11, Scott Norton, Costa Mesa, Calif., 13-10-1, 10,750, $4,500.

12, Pete Weber, St. Ann, Mo., 12-12, 10,739, $4,300.

13, Sean Rash, Montgomery, Ill., 10-12-2, 10,734, $4,100.

14, Lonnie Waliczek, Wichita, Kan., 13-11, 10,668, $4,000.

15, a-Marcus Berndt, Sweden, 13-11, 10,658, $3,900.

16, a-Mark Clark, Naperville, Ill., 15-9, 10,572, $3,800.

17, John Furey, East Windsor, N.J., 11-13, 10,570, $3,800.

18, Martin Larsen, Sweden, 11-12-1, 10,565, $3,600.

19, Andres Gomez, Colombia, 11-13, 10,561, $3,500.

20, a-E.J. Tackett, Huntington, Ind., 7-16-1, 10,422, $3,400.

21, John Szczerbinski, North Tonawanda, N.Y., 8-15-1, 10,408, $3,300.

22, a-Fero Williams, Fairfield, Ohio, 9-15, 10,334, $3,200.

23, a-Matthew O'Grady, South Amboy, N.J., 9-15, 10,319, $3,100.

24, Mike Fagan, Patchogue, N.Y., 8-15-1, 10,298, $3,000.

a = amateur


Saturday, Feb. 26

Match One - Bill O'Neill, Southampton, Pa., def. Dan MacLelland, Saginaw, Mich. ($10,000), 204-150.

Match Two - Ryan Shafer, Horseheads, N.Y., def. O'Neill ($11,000), 193-183. (Shafer advances to Sunday's Match Three).

Sunday, Feb. 27

Match Three - Shafer vs. No. 3 Mika Koivuniemi, Hartland, Mich. (loser earns $13,000).

Semifinal Match - Winner of Match Three vs. No. 2 Tommy Jones, Simpsonville, S.C. (loser earns $20,000).

Championship - Winner of Semifinal Match vs. No. 1 Norm Duke, Clermont, Fla. (winner earns $80,000, loser earns $40,000).