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Rick Steelsmith, healthy the last couple of years after an early career stalled by injury, won seven of eight matches in the final block Tuesday night to earn the top seed for tonight's stepladder finals of the Professional Bowlers Association Ebonite Challenge at Marcel's Olympic Bowl.

Steelsmith, PBA rookie of the year in 1988, made the TV finals (7:30, ESPN) for the third time this year. He has one victory, the PBA National Championship in Toledo in March, and a third-place finish in the Oregon Open in Portland last February.

Two-time defending champion Walter Ray Williams Jr. moved up from fifth place to second in the position round game with a 258-232 win over Doug Kent.

Jason Couch, a 245-195 loser to Steelsmith in the position round, held on for third place, while Steve Hoskins, a 214-176 position round winner over Tim Criss, was in fourth place as Criss dropped from third to fifth.

Shoulder injuries have plagued Steelsmith since his rookie year. He had surgery in April 1988, bowled just three events in '89, missed the whole Winter Tour in '93 and it wasn't until 1994 that he came back full-time.

"I've been pain-free the last 2 1/2 years," the 33-year-old Steelsmith said. "I think it's pretty much behind me now."

Steelsmith said he ices down his right shoulder after every round. "I might not have to do it as much now, but it works and I'm not about to change. I do some exercises to keep it strong and flexible."

A 268-214 victory over Harry Sullins and a 248-180 loss by Williams to Del Ballard in the first matches of the night lifted Steelsmith into first place, where he would stay.

A winner of the Senior/Touring Pro Doubles with Teata Semiz at Thruway Lanes in 1991, Steelsmith had high games of 268, 257, 245 and 241 among his eight games in which he averaged 226 for the block and 222.9 for the tournament's 42 games.

Of the seven multiple winners in contention for player of the year honors this year, Williams and Criss are the only two in tonight's finals.

Williams, who started the night 0-3, said, "I was trying to hook the ball a little and that's not what I needed to do." He said he changed to a slower speed to get a more direct line to the pocket.

As for his player of the year chances, Williams -- this year's only three-time winner -- said, "It doesn't enter my mind when I'm out there bowling. I'm pretty much concentrating on what I'm trying to do.

"I do think about it a little bit (at other times). It's like wow -- I won here the last two years -- but when I'm out there throwing shots I just don't think about it."

Kent, the local favorite from Canandaigua, started the final block in seventh place and won his first three games to move up to fourth, but then dropped his last five matches to finish sixth with a 15-9 record and earnings of $4,500.

Tom Baker of Buffalo and Chris Hooper of Maple Springs struggled most of the day. Baker, who won here in 1986 and was third two years ago, finished 19th this year and earned $1,700. Hooper, third here last year, was 24th and cashed $1,450.

First place tonight is worth $21,000. Williams is in his 13th TV final this year, Criss has now made seven shows and it will be the third TV appearance for Steelsmith, Couch and Hoskins.

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