SYRACUSE — The American Poolplayers Association Juniors League at Brick House Billiards is supposed to be in the midst of a break period, but its growing popularity among upstart area youth players like Curtis Girard and Ava Lucas has required the addition of an ongoing summer session.
Girard and Lucas — each of whom placed in the top five of their respective divisions at the APA Juniors Championship held June 27-30 in St. Louis, Mo. — are two of more than 20 youth pool players from the area that converge at Brick House Billiards in Syracuse each Sunday to learn the game and compete against peers of similar skill and experience levels.
The APA-sanctioned league, which will begin its second year in the fall, typically meets for two seasons per year but director and operator Brad Rees stated that he and his team of volunteers added a summer session to the docket this year due to high demand. The league started with roughly a dozen players last fall, Rees said, but nearly doubled for the spring while a waiting list has developed for the upcoming fall session.
“We had a lot of kids that wanted to continue to play through the summer, so we accommodated that and we’ll continue to play through the summer,” said Rees, a Central Square resident and co-owner of Brick House Billiards who started his first youth league 10 years ago in Fulton.
“There are many kids who have done well in the league and they’re going back and telling their friends, and then they’re coming in to learn how to play,” Rees added. “So we’re getting more participation and I just don’t know where it’s going to go. I hope we can get much bigger, and it seems to be going that direction.”
The league operates based on the APA handicapping system, which places players in different divisions based on skill and experience level. The youth league is open to players under the age of 18 with no minimum restriction, but players must be able to reach the table and play without damaging equipment.
Several current league members had not been introduced to the game before joining, and Rees leads a group of at least five volunteers each week that guide and instruct aspiring players while providing more advanced tips to other seasoned participants.
“Seeing these kids grow, you see kids hold cues for the first time to winning tournaments at the end of a session, and coming in on their own free time, and seeing them enjoy themselves has been the greatest feeling,” said Samantha Holzapfel, a volunteer division representative of the league, who has been involved the corresponding adult pool league for six years.
“Seeing the first few weeks, the frustration on their face to then coming in here and having fun is the greatest thing,” she added. “Not every kid is athletic and so this has become a huge thing for some of them, this can be that niche for them.”
Girard and Lucas each joined the league — the first such competitive pool endeavor for either player — through the influence of a family member during the past school year, and each recently culminated the campaign with a top-five finish at the APA Junior National Championships. The league conducted various fundraisers, including a mixed adult-youth tournament that was big hit among the younger players, to help offset the cost of travel for the prestigious event.
Girard, who graduated from Solvay High School in June, placed fifth in his bracket of 160 participants at one of the highest skill levels in the tournament.
“It was a little crazy but I liked it, it was just a big tournament,” Girard said. “I took fifth-place but I felt confident enough to win it. It was a different atmosphere, a lot of people in what felt like a little area.”
Girard started playing pool early in high school and joined the league last February after some prodding from Rees, who observed Girard’s potential when he would play with his grandfather at Brick House Billiards.
“I loved the experience of joining a league and playing, just meeting new people and getting out of the house,” Girard said. “Every game, it’s always different, no rack is ever alike.”
Lucas, who is entering seventh grade at Roxboro Middle School in North Syracuse, finished second in her respective bracket and was the only girl to place in the top five at the tournament overall, according to Rees.
“It was nerve-wracking and a little scary, but it was really fun,” Lucas said. “I was really proud of myself that I got that far.”
Lucas joined the Brick House Billiards youth league after her mom accepted a job offer at the restaurant/bar that features more than a dozen pool tables. Lucas joined the club at the start of last fall’s session and had limited prior experience with the game.
“My mom got a job at Brick House Billiards and wanted me to join the league, and she kept begging me to join it, and I kept saying no,” Lucas said. “One day she asked me and I finally just said: ‘OK,’ and when I joined I started loving it.”
She added: “I have liked meeting a lot of new people and getting into something that I can play for the rest of my life. … I would recommend it, especially for fun in the winter when you don’t have anything else to do.”
Chittenango sixth-grader Alie Thompson was another newcomer to the sport who joined this past spring, and advanced from beginner skill level No. 1 to level No. 2 before the start of summer.
“My favorite part is winning,” said Thompson, who joined the league after playing pool with her dad.
Rees became familiar with the APA in the early 1990’s while stationed in Dover during his 25 years of service with the U.S. Air Force. He took over as the APA league operator in Oswego and Onondaga Counties soon after his retirement from the military in 2008, and opened a youth league in Fulton at that time.
He has since stepped down from that post and moved his youth league to Brick House Billiards last fall after taking over as co-owner of the establishment.
“It’s not a sport that you pick up and come out immediately good at it,” Rees said. “It takes practice and it takes time, and I wanted to help the sport grow, help young people learn the game and keep it alive for years to come, so I thought the youth league was a great way to do that.”