It’s a small college in the Midwest, but Rio Rancho High School senior Kara Thompson doesn’t care.

McKendree University, located in Lebanon, Ill., has a great bowling program and that’s a good reason to strike while the proverbial iron is hot.

McKendree University is a private university, founded in 1828, and is the oldest college or university in Illinois. McKendree enrolls approximately 2,300 undergraduates and nearly 700 graduate students representing 25 countries and 29 states.

Thompson, a member of two state championship bowling teams at RRHS — and, hopefully, a third early next year — if her hip heals following her surgery on Tuesday at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque. With or without a hip at 100 percent, Thompson’s headed to McKendree: She has an academic scholarship awaiting her.

She withstood the pain and aggravation of that bothersome hip during the last bowling season, when the Rams won their seventh bowling title and third in a row.

“It took a toll on her hip,” says her bowling coach, Dana Miller-Mackie. “We needed her; we got some tights and wrapped her up. She wanted to bowl.”

Thompson said it’s no surprise that McKendree is aware of her bowling talents, since she has competed in junior tournaments in the Midwest, including the Chicago area, where she ultimately hopes to reside.

“The first time I ever wanted to go there was for a bowling tournament; it was in Detroit in 2018,” Thompson recalled. “I’ve been bowling since I was 3. My whole family is into bowling, especially my grandparents.”

Among her bowling highlights, she said, are “definitely the two times (She wasn’t on the 2018 team) that my high school team has won state; the other was in nationals my freshman year. I was 34th of more than 200 (in Indianapolis).”

She’s had a few perfect games, although each was unsanctioned: “289, sanctioned, is my best game,” she said.

Given that she’s an accomplished bowler, Miller-Mackie says there is a drawback to Thompson’s game: “She’s very hard on herself — sometimes that can be a distraction.

“We had a few conversations. I told her you can’t go off and sulk,” Miller-Mackie said. “She’s come a long way; she’s a very intense competitor and a very good student.”

Thompson agreed with Miller-Mackie’s assessment: “I’m determined and hard-working; if I have a goal in mind, I’ll do everything I can to accomplish it.”

Her doctor’s assessment of her surgery said, “It could take about five months… to reach 90 percent,” Thompson said.

In light of the pandemic, she said, “It was very frustrating; I was going crazy trying to keep myself busy, and not going to many bowling tournaments. … It’s definitely very painful, especially when I bowl.”

She went to a juniors tournament in Amarillo, she said, but, “I had to drop out because of my hip.”

Despite the graduation of two of the Rams’ stars, Yari Alvarez and Kalissa Fritts, Thompson says the Rams are capable of winning a fourth championship in a row.

A few years ago, Thompson had been planning to be behind the plate for the Rams’ softball team. But there’s no position on the field with more stress than an ornery hip, so she spent two years as a softball team manager.

In the immediate future, after snagging her diploma from RRHS, Thompson said she’ll major in biology at McKendree.

Ten years from now, Thompson said, she sees herself as a “paramedic in Chicago. I’ve always wanted to go to Chicago, because we have family in that area.”

McKendree U and women’s bowling

The Great Lakes Valley Conference sponsored women’s bowling as a championship sport for the first time in 2019-20, although the women’s team compiled three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, which included a national championship in 2017.

The NCAA Division II Bearcats named Shannon O’Keefe as head coach of the women’s bowling program in June 2014.

McKendree had a dual match record of 93-18 in the pandemic-shortened season of 2019-20 and earned the No. 1 spot in the final National Tenpin Coaches Association (NTCA) All-Division and Division II/III rankings.

It marks the second time in program history that McKendree finished the year atop the NTCA All-Division poll, while it was the fourth straight year the Bearcats led the way in the last Division II/III rating of the season.

O’Keefe is the two-time reigning PWBA Player of the Year. After first winning the award in 2018, she had a breakout season in 2019. That season, O’Keefe won five titles and cashed in all 13 of the tour’s events. She averaged 215.63 for the 2019 season.

Along with her success on the lanes on the PWBA Tour, O’Keefe has qualified as a member of Team USA every year since 2005. She has been an integral member of Team USA during her 16-year run. Since joining Team USA, O’Keefe has earned 43 medals during international competition; which

Kara Thompson, member of the last two state championship bowling teams at Rio Rancho High School.

includes 25 gold medals, 11 silver medals and seven bronze medals.