A Matter of When, Not If: Matt Russo Captures First Career PBA Title
Winning a professional bowling title is exceedingly difficult. Many young players struggle to merely cash during their first few years on the PBA tour.
The same was true for Matt Russo — until it wasn’t.
Russo, the 24-year-old, two-handed lefty, emerged victorious at the 2021 PBA Jonesboro Open, netting him $10,000 and his first career PBA title. He defeated seven-time PBA champion Jakob Butturff in the semifinals and 2019 PBA Rookie of the Year Mykel Holliman in the title match.
Russo joined the PBA Tour after graduating from Webber International University in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic hit not long after, and suddenly finding a place to practice became difficult.
When most bowling centers were shut down, he met Gary Gruberman through his fiancée, Lauren Pate, and her coach, Shannon O’Keefe.
Gruberman runs Stars and Strikes Bowling Center on the Scott Air Force base near St. Louis. During the pandemic, he has allowed Russo to use his facilities, which are not too far from his new home in Manchester, Missouri.
“If he wants a pattern out, I’ll put a pattern down for him. If he needs to drill up a ball, we’ll go in and drill up a ball for him,” Gruberman said over the phone.
“I don’t know where I would’ve been without him,” Russo said over Zoom. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know if I would’ve been able to bowl this whole year.”
Russo practices almost every day, usually in the mornings before he goes to work as a sales associate at Best Buy.
“The job gives me something to do when I’m not bowling. It gives me more of an appreciation to be out on tour and helps me look forward to traveling more than anything else,” Russo said.
Long before this title, Russo’s resume already spoke for itself: U.S. Amateur Champion in 2017, Collegiate Player of the Year in 2019, Team USA Trials Champion in 2020. He won four gold medals at PABCON in 2018, sweeping the event. He made Junior Team USA twice and has represented Team USA in four of the past five years.
But it’s a different game on the PBA Tour.
“I’ve seen some people go out there, and their first couple years they get their teeth kicked in,” Russo said. “It’s a lot of learning and understanding about how the tour is.”
“I had an okay first season. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t too great. It was what I expected, cashing a little bit and learning a lot,” Russo said. “I definitely did not expect to win as early as I did, not even two years in.”
And yet, those who know him well were not surprised at all by his victory.
“It was just a matter of time before he actually won,” Gruberman said.
Del Warren coached Russo from 2015-2019 at Webber. He said he had two immediate reactions when Russo won in Jonesboro.
“First and foremost, I was ecstatic for Matt,” Warren said over the phone. “Secondly, I was not surprised. It’s not a shocker to us [at Webber] that he won.”
Aaron Yuratovich bowled at Webber with Russo for three seasons.
“When I saw that he had won a PBA title, I could not have been less surprised,” Yuratovich said over the phone. “If you know Matt, and if you’ve met Matt, and if you’ve seen him compete, he just doesn’t miss very often. He’s just that good.”
Russo said he’s always taken a lot of pride in being able to come through in pressure situations, like needing marks in the 9th and 10th frames to secure your first career PBA title.
“He was as clutch as any player I’ve ever seen in college bowling,” Warren said.
“He’s going to double when he needs it. He's going to make the shot when he needs it,” Yuratovich said. “Anytime we needed a double in the tenth and he was in the five-hole, you can never bet on it but if you were gonna bet on it, we were probably going to win.”
Jalen Scott-Jones started at Webber the season before Russo, and they bowled together in 2016-17.
“If it came down to Matt, I felt like he would win it,” Scott-Jones said over the phone. “He came through so many times in 2017.”
Warren’s unequivocal favorite moment with Russo came in 2017 during the semifinal match of the Intercollegiate Team Championships.
Game 7. Webber International versus Wichita State. The winner bowls for the national title against McKendree.
In the anchor positions were Matt Russo and Wesley Low — two-handed lefties with polar opposite styles and two of the top recruits from the 2015 class.
Warren compares Russo to Greg Maddux; he paints the corners like an artist. Meanwhile, Low’s game is ferocious; he overpowers the lanes with raw energy and force.
“Our goal was just to bowl our game and do our process. If we came out on top, we came out on top,” Yuratovich said. “But, like, you can feel if you’re winning. And we knew we weren’t.”
Wichita State indeed led for most of the game — until Low left a 6-8 split in the tenth frame, opening the door for Russo and Webber.
Russo needed to double in the tenth frame, or Webber’s season was over. He had been preparing himself for that exact situation; he knew long before Low split that the game would come down to him.
“Matt saw this coming five frames before and he sat down by himself to mentally get ready,” Warren said.
“After I bowled my frame in the fifth, I sat down about five to eight lanes away from everybody, just hoping for a chance,” Russo said.
Just a few moments earlier, Webber’s season was all but over. Suddenly, it had new life — and it all rested in Matt Russo’s hands.
Russo drove the daggers into the Shockers’ chest, firing a pair of strikes to send his team to the national championship. Webber went on to defeat McKendree for the title.
Warren and Yuratovich said they realized Russo was going to be successful on tour during his junior season in 2018. Russo said he started working harder in order to get to the next nevel.
“I worked with Ruben [Ghiragossian], Del, and Randy [Stoughton]. I really want to get to that next level,” Russo said. “I knew what it was going to be like going on tour, but I wanted to make sure I was ready.”
Another motivator in the spring of 2018 further ignited Russo. USBC Collegiate announced in February of 2018 that Webber’s 2017 ITC championship would be vacated because the team used an ineligible player.
“It had to do with hardly any of us [on the team]. We were unfortunately all caught up in it,” Russo said. “It motivated me personally to not have my name not be tied to that situation. I wanted to prove to everybody that just because things happened the way they did, does not mean that I wasn't somebody to watch out for.”
In the 2019 season, his senior year, Russo silenced any and all potential doubters.
He led the country with an average of nearly 226 — more than ten pins better than the next highest average and the highest overall since 2012. He earned the NCBCA Player of the Year award and was named a first team All-American.
Russo also led Webber back to the Intercollegiate Team Championship title match.
In the first game on the show, Russo needed two strikes and good count to force Lawrence Tech’s anchor to double in the tenth frame.
“The pattern is impossible. It's on TV. We have to have three perfect shots, and they pretty much all have to strike,” Yuratovich, who graduated in 2018 and was watching from the crowd, said. “The odds are just not really in our favor.”
“Matt gets up there: Strike, ten back. Strike, ten back,” Yuratovich said. At that moment, he said he knew Russo was special.
“Bowling on TV is crazy. I remember it [in 2017]. I couldn’t feel my legs. I could barely see the arrows. I was so nervous,” Yuratovich said. “And it didn’t really faze [Matt]. I remember, in that moment, thinking, ‘If this doesn’t faze him, bowling against the pros for a couple thousand bucks really isn’t going to faze him either.’”
Webber won the game 179-176 and went on to win the title 3-0.
“Winning with the guys I went to school with for four years, and some friends that transferred in was definitely my favorite moment at Webber,” Russo said.
Growing up in Millstone Township, New Jersey, Russo became infatuated with bowling at an early age. He became addicted to the taste of winning.
He bowled at Howell Lanes, the same center Parker Bohn III grew up in. Russo met the living legend when he was seven or eight years old at Bohn III’s youth scholarship tournament. The two have grown close over the years, with the elder lefty imparting countless advice.
“He’s like a second father to me,” Russo said. “The amount of excitement and joy that he had after I won just makes it all feel great. It pays everything off.”
Russo had plenty of success in the New Jersey area as a junior bowler.
Scott-Jones, a college teammate of Russo’s, grew up not far away in Rhode Island. He said Russo dominated New Jersey bowlers at an early age.
He recalls bowling a BEST event, a tournament series in the New Jersey area, when he and Russo were in their teens.
“Russo bowled like a 279 and then back-to-back 300s,” Scott-Jones said. “I was telling my friend, ‘This dude, man. He’s a bad dude.’”
While Russo was dominating local tournaments, his success hadn’t quite translated to the national stage.
That changed when Russo made his Team USA Trials debut in 2016. He finished tenth overall and clinched a spot on Junior Team USA.
“When I made the Junior Team in 2016, that was a nice push,” Russo said. “Knowing I was good enough to be with Kamron Doyle, Wesley Low and Anthony Simonsen — guys who had either been on the team for several years or had their name out there.”
With the affirmation that he belonged on the national stage, Russo’s career took off.
In 2017, he finished third overall at Team USA Trials and won the U.S. amateur championship. He reclaimed a spot on Junior Team USA and made the adult national team for the first time.
Russo nearly repeated as U.S. Amateur champion in 2018, but fell to Cortez Schenck in the title match. His fifth place overall finish was enough to secure a berth on the adult national team once again.
Thus far, his worst career finish at Team USA Trials came in 2019, when he finished 14th overall and did not make the national team. In 2020, Russo owned the tournament. He finished first overall to take home the title, leading or finishing second in four of the five days of competition.
“I've used the same system year after year, as far as mindset, ball selection and how I play the lanes,” Russo said. “To this day, I’ve yet to tell anybody what it is.”
While he may or may not be able to articulate the secret to his success at Team USA Trials, Russo is confident in his greatest strength as a player: his touch and feel.
Warren, his college coach, said his wife once asked him, “Why does Matty’s ball always look like it’s on auto-pilot?”
“He has this uncanny touch. He’s an absolute artist with the bowling ball in his hand,” Warren said.
Russo’s exceptional feel certainly contributed to his win in Jonesboro. He said he figured out the tricky left lane, which was the deciding factor in the stepladder finals.
Bowlers and bowling fans may point to the all-lefty show at the Jonesboro Open — where Purple Hammer Urethanes were used exclusively — and try to discredit those who made the stepladder.
But here’s the thing: using urethane isn’t Russo’s A-game. “Going straighter up the lane is more of my B-game. I like to hook it.” Russo said.Yuratovich witnessed Russo’s practice regime first-hand at Webber. He said there are some lefties, both on tour and coming up at the youth level, who can only win with urethane.
“Not Russo,” Yuratovich said.
“Every time the public sees Matt Russo bowl, he’s throwing urethane,” Yuratovich said. “Every time I saw him bowl in the training center, he was throwing reactive.”
Scott-Jones, a fellow left-hander, shared one example from their days at Webber that encapsulated Russo’s unique talent.
He said the team was practicing on a short, flat pattern. He and most of the lefties kept trying to play straight up the lanes, as lefties almost always do on short patterns.
After never figuring out how to strike consistently, Scott-Jones walked over to where Russo was bowling.
Russo was sliding right of 30, throwing a shiny ball out to about 7, and striking at will.
“I just do things differently,” Russo said. “I think that’s what’s helped me be the most successful. Trusting my game and trusting myself.”
Russo has a new goal on his mind: 2021 Rookie of the Year.
The PBA opted to roll over eligible rookies from the 2020 season into 2021. When fellow rookies Wesley Low and Zach Weidman made the Players Championship shows in their region, Russo knew he would have to step up his game to garner consideration.
Russo lagged behind Weidman entering the Summer Tour on the PBA Tour Points list, but his performances this summer have likely closed the gap, with the title potentially serving as the difference maker.
With just one tournament left this season in Chesapeake, Virginia, the Rookie of the Year race has vaulted to the forefront of Russo’s thoughts.
“That’s probably the only thing on my mind, winning Rookie of the Year,” Russo said. “You only get that chance once. I can bowl for a hundred titles in my career, but you’re only a rookie once.”
While the award is on his mind, it won’t change his philosophy when competition begins on Saturday afternoon. Russo said he walked into the PBA stop in Coldwater, Ohio with the same mindset as he did in Jonesboro, and will do the same in Chesapeake.
“I don't expect to make every cut. I don’t expect to win every time. I want to win, right, that's my ultimate goal, but I don’t expect it,” Russo said. “My whole mindset going into the tour was ‘when it’s your time, it’s your time’ so I’m going to keep going with that.”
His friends, however, have higher expectations.
“Once you get the monkey off your back, you kind of open up the floodgates,” Yuratovich said.
Scott-Jones said as Russo gets some more experience on tour, he’ll prove he’s one of the best out there.
“There’s no doubt for me: I think he’s gonna win some majors, especially as a lefty,” Warren said. “His skill is only gonna get better. We haven’t seen his peak yet.”
“I’m getting more and more confident that I can be the best out here,” Russo said. “That’s really what keeps me going.”