SOUTHINGTON — Sal Conti proudly watched a live stream of three of his pupils performing at the American Poolplayers Association’s Junior Championships earlier this summer.
Conti, owner of Shooters Billiards and Arcade in Southington and a coach at the Connecticut APA Junior Academy, was overwhelmed with the success of 18-year-old Cameron Johnson, his 16-year-old sister Taylor Johnson and 10-year-old Brian Marek III as the trio made the trek to nationals at the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis.
“Many of the matches were live-streamed and the parents also streamed them on Facebook,” Conti said. “I watched almost all of their matches. I was so impressed with the way they carried themselves. They performed in a fashion well beyond their years and I'm so proud to know them. They greeted their opponents and were respectful during the match.
“None of these kids knew how to play pool before joining us," Conti added. “It shows if you have the willingness to work hard at something you can find success.”
The Junior Championships were a double-elimination, 9-ball tourament. The brackets are based on skill level, not age.
Cameron Johnson, who won the Connecticut APA Junior Championship in May, placed fifth nationally.
What Johnson does in pool, though, goes far beyond where he places. Cameron is autistic and his mother, Connie, called the Junior Academy a “life changer” for her son. In billiards, she noted, Cameron has found a community.
“Cameron struggles to write his name and here he is winning fifth at nationals,” Connie Johnson said, noting that she and her husband Tim, “were amazed; he just missed winning his last match in St. Louis when the 9-ball teetered on the pocket, but didn’t go in. This is a huge accomplishment for Cameron. He was crying because he did so well. He was super proud of himself. We couldn’t ask for anything else.
“The social aspect is huge,” she added. “When we first started playing. I saw him holding a pool cue and pool is something that clicked with him. What he sees is different from what I see. He sees a shot and he makes it. In the aspect of the autism, his brain is working a completley different way. For him to do this and get to this level is great. He tried baeball and basketball, and he struggled. He found his niche with pool. He’s even made trick shots with Sal.”
In St. Louis, Cameron rolled through the first four matches before dropping a closely contested quarterfinal match to the eventual champion.
In the early rounds, Cameron dispatched the competition in short order. He finished one match in one minute and 30 seconds.
“I’ve never jumped up and down in my living room like that before,” Conti said after watching Cameron’s match. “He didn’t fit in during other settings, but he fit in with us and, for me, that’s a reason to get up in the morning.”
The national tournament put the cap of Cameron’s second full year of competitive billiards. Having turned 18 in March. he is now playing with adults. He plays in 8-ball and 9-ball leagues at Shooters.
“I got into it because my parents play in leagues,” Cameron said. “After they were done playing for the night, I tried it out and I found that it was my thing. It feels really good to play. It’s better than being bored inside the house. It give you something to do. I can play for hours. When I was in St. Louis, I was down in the practice room unitl 3:30 a.m.
“It was fun and I got to meet a lot of new people,” Cameron said of his trip to nationals. “I was able to speak with people from all over the world.”
One of them was professional player Jeanette Lee, who is known as the “The Black Widow.” Cameron briefly practiced with her.
Cameron’s sister, Taylor, also participated in the national event after placing third in Connecticut. A member of APA Juniors for the last three years,Taylor dropped her opening match before rebounding to place 65th in her division.
She was also one of 40 students honored with an academic achievement award for her grades.
“It was different than anything I’ve competed in,” Taylor said. “It was a whole new level. It helped me become a better player. I surprised myself at nationals.”
Marek, the youngest in Southington’s national trio, excelled in his first year in the Junior Academy. He finished second in the state in his division and 33rd in St. Louis out of 198. His twin brother Matthew and younger brother Ben, 8, are also in the Junior Academy.
Brian Marek, in his 4-1 run in St. Louis, racked up wins over older players, including a 13-year old and a 16-year old. He ended up losing to a 16-year old.
“I hope to get back there next year,” said the son of Brian and Stacy Marek. “It was fun to travel to do something that I love playing.”
Conti said he instructed his talented trio to enjoy the time on the national stage.
“When you get to that level, there should be no pressure,” Conti said. “I told them, ‘You’re already a champion and you’ve earned a right to be here; go there and be the best you can be; if someone is going to beat you, they are going to have to be spectaular.’”
The Southington trio responded.
“They are all awesome kids,” Conti said. “There was a lot of stimulation going on at the junior nationals, with hundreds of people there and that competition doesn’t bring the best out of everyone, but these kids played phenominally.
“These are special kids and just a lot of fun. They represented our town and state with class.”
Back at home, the Junior Academy, which was founded by Bruce and Ann Barthelette, had 22 students this season, ranging in age from 7 to 18. The group meets the first Saturday of each month from September to May.
“I always want a welcoming enviornment for all of our kids,” Conti said. “They come in and feel like they belong. They all have family members who play pool and it’s a great way for kids to spend time with adults. This group is one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my 25 years in the sport.
“Without Bruce, none of this wouldn’t have happened,” Conti added. “It’s our little baby and it’s how we give back to the sport.”
The Junior Academy resumes Sept. 8. There will be an informational meeting at Shooters on Monday, Aug. 27 at 7 p.m. for parents interested in the program. For questions about the Junior Academy or the Connecticut APA Pool League, call 1-888-APA-POOL.