Momence native, McNamara grad Branka breaks Illinois women’s bowling record

Brandi Branka, a Momence native and 2008 Bishop McNamara graduate, set a new Illinois women’s three-game bowling record by scoring an 868 at Bel-Air Bowl in Bellerville Wednesday.

For years now, Brandi Branka has been regarded as one of the best bowlers to come out of the greater Kankakee area. And after Wednesday, the Momence native and 2008 Bishop McNamara graduate can stake her claim as the best women’s bowler in Illinois history.

Branka, a professional bowler in the Professional Women’s Bowling Association, fired a three-game score of 868 on Wednesday in her women’s bowling league at Bel-Air Bowl in Bellerville. She shot a 290 in the first game, followed by a 279 and finished strongly with a near-perfect 299.

The feat came on the last night of the league before it shut down amidst the new COVID-19 mitigations put forth by Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Public Health, and also came in Branka’s first bit of action with a brand new ball, the Hammer Web MB.

“I’ve been bowling pretty well in that league, but I didn’t expect to shoot what I did, especially with a new ball I got about 20 minutes before league started,” Branka said. “I called my driller and asked if he could get it drilled before the shutdown.

“I didn’t expect it and was honestly more nervous to bowl an 800 (in a three-game set) than to bowl a 300 (in one game).”

The record is just the latest major accomplishment for Branka. In 2011, she was the leader for McKendree University in Lebanon. On the way to leading the Bearcats to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Championship, Branka was a first-team All-American and was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2011 National Tournament. A second All-American honor followed the next year.

Branka joined the PWBA in 2016 and has racked up a handful of top-10 finishes, including a pair of second-place trophies. She’s also the head coach at Maryville University in St. Louis, where she became the school’s first women’s bowling coach in 2015 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II school.

After her record-breaking night, Branka was showered with admiration from the women she coaches.

“I had a bunch of them text me or Facebook message me,” Branka said. “They all were just super excited.”

Perhaps nobody was more excited about Branka’s accomplishment than her father, Bob.

“He’s always the first one I call [after bowling], and he couldn’t believe it,” Brandi said. “His first words were just, ‘Really?’

“He’s the one who got me into the sport, so I hope I’m making him proud.”

While her father is the one responsible for introducing her to bowling, Bob said it’s Brandi’s late mother, Pam, who is most responsible for the success she has had.

Pam was one of two people tragically killed during a botched robbery of the Burger King in Momence where she worked. With the love and support of a community, Bob said his daughter was able to remain strong through a difficult time and now has her mother watching over her.

“After Pam got killed, things could have gone either way,” Bob said. “We had so much support from the McNamara family and in town, a bunch of people that were family that really helped.

“I still think Pam is on her shoulder watching her, it’s a fact.”

Brandi has her mom’s initials on the collar of all of her jerseys as a reminder that she has Pam with her. And although her dad isn’t able to make all of her tournaments around the country, Brandi knows he feels relief that her mom is always there.

“Even though my dad is the one who got me started with bowling, my mom was the one who always drove me to leagues and tournaments and was my shoulder to cry on if things didn’t go well,” Brandi said. “They both made a huge impact on my bowling career, and I wouldn’t be where am today without both of them.”

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