Neishka Cardona and Kimi Davidson, the last of the original members of Sam Houston State’s inaugural women’s bowling team in 2010-11, have accomplished something no other pair of Bearkat senior student-athletes can claim.

The pair have been part of squads that have reached the NCAA Division I Championships “Elite Eight” in their sport three times.

Cardona, a political science major from Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Davidson, a history major from Azle, Texas, are the only seniors on the SHSU women’s bowling team that just earned a berth in the eight-team field at the NCAA Championships in Cleveland Thursday through Saturday April 10-12.

When the pair were freshmen and helped the Kats earn their initial trip to the NCAA, it marked the first time an inaugural program at a Division I university had made the tournament.

In both the team’s trips to the NCAA in 2011 and 2012, the Bearkats finished seventh. This year the two seniors and their teammates have their sights set higher.

“As seniors, we’ve been there twice. We know what’s coming in Cleveland,” Cardona said. “It’s a tough two-day grind to get to the championship match. We have to work our way through it, always pushing each other to do better.”

Both seniors believe they can help their teammates by sharing their experiences in the previous two trips to the NCAA.

“The first two years, we were excited just to get in the tournament,” Davidson said. “Now as seniors, we want to go out with more. We want to leave a legacy for Bearkat bowling teams to come.”

In their four seasons as Sam Houston bowlers, Cardona and Davidson have led the Bearkats to an overall record of 342 victories and only 158 losses in dual match play. In traditional team matches (one of two formats the bowlers play in tournament action) Davidson has posted a career average of 193.34 total pins while Cardona is right behind with a 191.85 average.

When the pair look back to when they first arrived on campus, they both find it hard to believe the four years have gone by so quickly. Even before the pair bowled one frame as Bearkats, head coach Brad Hagen had set national prominence as a goal.

“There were a lot of unknowns our first year,” Davidson said. “We were part of a brand new program building from the ground up. As we all got to know each other, we began to believe something special could happen.”

Sam Houston rolled to 71 victories that inaugural season, climbing as high as No. 5 in the national rankings.

“Our freshman year seems like just yesterday. It’s gone by so fast,” Cardona said. “From the first, our goal always has been to get to the NCAA tournament.  When I came here and saw what a good team we had we knew that was possible.”

The pair’s sophomore year ended in disappointment, however, as, despite a 79-35 overall season record, the Kats just missed earning a second trip to nationals.

“Not getting to go our sophomore year was depressing,” Cardona said. “We were so disappointed that none of us really wanted to talk to each other for a couple of days after the announcement. But, looking back, that experience made us even more determined the next year. It really gave us the momentum to keep working to get better every day and push each other to improve.”

The hard work paid off as Sam Houston powered to a school season record 102 victories and again went to the NCAA championships. The two seniors believe they’ve learned a lot from their two trips to the tournament.

“We know the routine and what to expect,” Davidson said. “It’s an intense two days to get to the championship match. We have to remain focused.”

Arkansas State, Central Missouri, Nebraska, Maryland-Eastern Shore, Fairleigh Dickinson, Vanderbilt and Wisconsin-Whitewater are the other seven teams selected. Sam Houston has dual match victories over each of these teams this year including four wins over No. 1 Arkansas State and three over defending champion Nebraska.

The Bearkats head coach knows how important Cardona and Davidson are to the team’s success at Cleveland.

“Having Kimi and Neishka as seniors this year has been huge for us,” Hagen said.  “It’s really big to have the right senior leadership. They’ve been part of all the hard work that’s gotten the program where it is during the past four years.”

During the 2013-14 season, Sam Houston has totaled 90 victories, the second highest total in NCAA Division I women’s bowling this year (behind only No. 1 Arkansas State’s 91 wins).

But the Bearkats weren’t a shoe-in for the NCAA Elite Eight halfway through the season.

“We struggled a bit in the fall,” Cardona said. “The second half of the season, we knew what we had to do to achieve our goal. We kept pushing each other to get better and we made it. As seniors, we know what’s coming in Cleveland. We have to work our way through it, always pushing each other to do better.”

Sam Houston closed out the regular season with strong performances in several major tournaments.

“After the first half of the season, we had to reevaluate what we were doing,” Davidson said. “We knew we had to go full steam ahead in the second half.  It’s nice to know we accomplished everything we had set our minds to. Now we have to do the same in Cleveland.”

For the Cardona, Davidson and their head coach the NCAA Elite Eight being in Cleveland means something special.

“Our sophomore year, when we didn’t get selected, the NCAAs were in Cleveland,” Davidson said. “Between Neishka, coach and myself, we’ve always thought of Cleveland as the one that got away. This one is special. It’s really satisfying to be going there at last.”

All eight berths in the national tournament are at-large selections. Seedings for the Elite Eight are set during the first day of the NCAA event as the squads play a round-robin schedule. Double elimination bracket match play begins on Friday. The championship match is Saturday.