Jones, a 19-year-old Oklahoma native, joins Tackett, Fach, Svensson and Russo in championship round

From Jason Belmonte’s record-breaking 11th major title, to Chris Via’s second televised 300 game, to Anthony Simonsen’s unprecedented fifth major title at the age of 27, countless PBA history has been made at Strobl Arena inside Thunderbowl Lanes in Allen Park, Mich.

A new tale of Thunderbowl lore may have just begun to unfold as 19-year-old Eric Jones won the play-in stepladder to advance to the PBA World Championship finals on Saturday night.

Defying age-related expectations is nothing new for Jones.

As a non-member, Jones won a PBA Regional Tour title in Oct. 2020 at the age of 15 years and 263 days, becoming the then-youngest player to win a regional. (Brady McDonough, also as a non-member, won a regional last year at the age of 15 years and 137 days old.)

Jones moves on to Sunday’s championship round, where he will meet defending champion and reigning Player of the Year EJ Tackett in the opening match. Three left-handers wait in the wings: Graham Fach, Jesper Svensson and top seed Matt Russo.

“Well Simo did it, so I'm not doing anything brand new here,” said Jones, referring to Anthony Simonsen winning the USBC Masters at the age of 19. “I'm just bowling my game. I'm out here trying to do my best and if my best is going for a major I'm pretty happy with that.”

The finals of the season’s fourth major championship will begin Sunday at noon Eastern on FOX.

Russo, Svensson, Fach and Tackett clinched berths in Sunday’s finals by qualifying in the top four of the PBA World Championship, which consisted of 61 games of qualifying throughout the PBA World Series of Bowling XV.

The fifth through ninth qualifiers competed in Saturday’s play-in stepladder for the final berth in Sunday’s championship round.

In the opening match, the ninth-seeded Michael Martell started with back-to-back open frames. His switch from urethane to reactive came far too late as the No. 8 seed Packy Hanrahan fired seven consecutive strikes to win the match, 256-193.

Hanrahan and Kyle Sherman battled in a back and forth second match. They entered the 10th frame tied. Sherman, finishing first, wrapped a 10-pin and missed it; Hanrahan then converted a 7-pin to win the match.

Jones entered a Hanrahan-friendly arena for the third match, but said his ball reaction allowed him to not crowd let the crowd get in his head.

“I had really, really good ball reaction that game, and that took away a lot of the intensity,” Jones said. “I just knew if I could put (the ball) there, it was probably going to strike. I had a very good idea of what was going on.”

On his first shot, however, Jones did not put the ball where he wanted. He split in his opening frame, leaving the 3-6-7. He made the split and was off to the races.

“I would have rather done that than strike. I would have rather done that than shoot 300,” Jones said. “To throw my first shot on TV (as a professional) terrible and then add the momentum of picking up a split and the momentum of my dad going crazy, it was perfect. It completely loosened me up. I knew what I could do and I knew what I was going to do after that.”

Jones rattled off nine strikes in his next 10 shots, leaving only a wrapped 7-pin in between, to knock off Hanrahan, 267-232.

Jones met another two-handed lefty, Michigan native Justin Knowles, in the final match on Saturday night.

The 19-year-old started the night’s final match with three of four strikes before leaving the 6-7-10 in the fifth frame. In similar fashion, Jones converted the split to maintain a 257-256 max score advantage.

The split conversion added pressure on Knowles, who wasn’t able to string more than two strikes together. After Knowles failed to double in the 10th, Jones needed just nine pins to secure the match victory. He spared the 2-4 and won the match, 215-202.

Jones said that the reality of the situation — that he sits four games away from a major championship title — hasn’t quite processed.

“I think that's what helps me with my composure on TV: I don't understand what's going on,” Jones said. “I was hardly even looking at a target today. I was, but I didn’t know I was. It just gets me into tunnel vision. I can't think. It's frame by frame. It keeps me purely in the moment because if I'm not in the moment, I'm going to have a panic attack.”

Though he keeps a care-free attitude, Jones understands the big picture.

Jones, sitting 57th in points after the PBA Shark Championship, will climb into the top 36 or so with this performance in a major. With the top 43 players in points following next week’s PBA Tournament of Champions earning exempt berths for the 2025 PBA Tour, Jones understands he can change the course of his career.

“Every single place counts this week,” Jones said. “There's no guarantee I’m going to be able to bowl on the TOC because I have to bowl the pre-tournament qualifier. Every game is the most important game I'm ever going to bowl, until I get to the title match.”

Jones will meet defending champion EJ Tackett in the opening match on Sunday.

Tackett, who won the PBA Shark Championship on Wednesday night, will take over the points lead for the 2024 season regardless of his finish on Sunday. A title, however, would catapult the 31-year-old to the forefront of the Player of the Year conversation.

But first, Tackett must get past the 19-year-old who has shown no signs of being intimidated or backing down.

The PBA World Championship finals begin Sunday at noon Eastern on FOX.

Play-In Stepladder Scores

Match 1: No. 8 Packy Hanrahan def. No. 9 Michael Martell, 256-193
Match 2: No. 8 Packy Hanrahan def. No. 7 Kyle Sherman, 199-188
Match 3: No. 6 Eric Jones def. No. 8 Packy Hanrahan, 267-232
Match 4: No. 6 Eric Jones def. No. 5 Justin Knowles, 215-202

Final Standings

6. Justin Knowles, $25,000
7. Packy Hanrahan, $20,000
8. Kyle Sherman, $15,000
9. Michael Martell, $13,000