SOUTHINGTON - As Sal Conti watched three of his students take part in the American Poolplayers Association’s Junior Championships earlier this summer, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride.
Not only had 18-year-old Cameron Johnson, his 16-year-old sister Taylor and 10-year-old Brian Marek III showed off their skills at the junior national event at the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis, they did so in a way that, as Conti put it, was more mature than their ages.
“I watched match after match after match and was so proud with how they carried themselves with such calmness,” said Conti, the owner of Shooters Billiards and Arcade in Southington and a coach at the Connecticut APA Junior Academy. “These are kids, and to carry themselves the way they did - they shook their opponent’s hand before the match, after the match and acted the same whether they won or lost - that’s hard for adults to do.
“The state of Connecticut should be very proud by the way these kids represented us. We’re very fortunate. The future of the sport is bright.”
The Junior Championships were a double-elimination 9-ball tournament with brackets based on skill level, not age, routinely putting the trio up against opponents who were more experienced.
In just his second full year playing billiards competitively, Cameron Johnson, who won the Connecticut APA Junior Championship in May, placed fifth nationally.
But for Cameron Johnson and his family, pool offers him more than a chance to compete in tournaments. Cameron is autistic and in billiards, his mother Connie said, he’s found a place he fits in and belongs.
“We tried baseball, basketball, soccer and it just wasn’t for him,” Connie said. “Cameron has a hard time with some of his fine motor skills. He has a hard time writing his name. At first, he had a hard time holding the stick and I said to my husband [Tim], ‘Ah, I don’t know if this is a good idea.’ But he quickly fell in love with it.”
“When he won the whole [state] tournament in May out of 32 people, we were more shocked than Cameron was at the time,” she added. “The way he sees the table, it’s in his own way. And then when we went to nationals, he just kept winning. My husband and I were in tears. We’re so proud of him. It was amazing to see Cameron have his moment.”
At the national championships, Cameron Johnson made quick work of his first four opponents - one win came in just a minute and 30 seconds - before losing a closely contested quarterfinal match to the eventual champion when the 9-ball teetered on the pocket, but didn’t go in.
“I’m not sure Cameron really fit in in traditional youth sports and from the beginning, learned this was kind of his thing,” Conti said. “For somebody to come into the pool room and feel like they belong is important to me. He comes in and he works hard.”
Having turned 18 in March, Cameron Johnson will move on from the junior circuit and will be playing with adults. He currently plays in 8-ball and 9-ball leagues at Shooters.
“My dad actually signed me up for lessons,” Cameron Johnson said of how he got into billiards. “Both my parents play, so I was excited to play. In the state tournament, I told my mom I was going to win and I won. That was my first tournament before I went to St. Louis. I just really like playing. It gives you something to do and you get to meet new people and it’s better than just sitting in the house. In St. Louis, I went down to the practice room until 3:30 in the morning just playing. It’s a lot of fun.”
Cameron’s sister, Taylor Johnson, participated in the event after placing third in Connecticut. In her third year as a member of the APA Juniors, she took 65th in her division after rebounding from an opening-round loss.
Strong in the classroom as well, Taylor Johnson was one of 40 students honored with an academic achievement award for her grades.
“[Nationals] definitely boosted my confidence, because I hadn’t been in many tournaments before,” Taylor Johnson said. “It was very different than what I was used to. But I feel like I did really well. I’m not sure if I thought I was going to do that well going into it.”
One of Taylor Johnson’s favorite memories from the tournament, however, was getting a chance to practice with professional player Jeanette Lee, also known as the “The Black Widow.”
“It was awesome that she spent time with us,” Taylor Johnson said. “She showed us some neat skills and how to properly do things and encouraged us. It was great.”
Marek had quite a first year in the Junior Academy. After finishing second in the state in his division, he placed 33rd in St. Louis out of 198 players.
What made Marek’s run quite special was he often went up against and beat players who were older, including a 13-year-old and a 16-year-old. Marek ended up losing to a 16-year-old to finish his time in St. Louis with a 4-1 record.
“It was really fun,” said Marek, whose twin brother Matthew and younger brother Benjamin, 8, are also in the Junior Academy. “It was great to meet people from around the country and play a bunch of people you don’t know.”
But none of the results came as a surprise to Conti.
“In a short time, they’ve turned themselves into players,” Conti said. “It’s always important to remember, it doesn’t matter where you start, it’s where you finish. If kids enjoy it, you’d be surprised with how much they put into it.”
That part goes back to the Junior Academy, which was founded by Bruce and Ann Barthelette. Now in its third year, the academy had 22 students this season, ranging from age 7 to 18. The group meets the first Saturday of each month from September to May.
“This is kind of Bruce’s and [my] baby,” Conti said. “This is our way of giving back to the sport.”
The Junior Academy resumes Sept. 8. For parents interested in the program, there will be an informational meeting at Shooters on Monday, Aug. 27, at 7 p.m. For more information about the Junior Academy or the Connecticut APA Pool League, call 1-888-APA-POOL.
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org