By Ned Bekavac
Jeff Bird takes his pool playing pretty seriously.
For proof, you could probably ask his nine-year-old son, Shawn.
“I’m a little too competitive for him, but we play once in a while and we get to have fun together,” says Jeff.
Surely you take it easy on him?
“Nope,” says Jeff, shaking his head.
But he’s nine years old, Jeff.
“Nope,” he says, this time with a hint of a smile.
“You have to learn the hard way,” Jeff says.
Such competitive spirit for Jeff and for his seven pool-playing teammates has paid off.
The team, called R U Kidding Me?, recently won the 2012 TAP (The Association of Pool, which dubs itself “The best amateur league in North America”) nine-ball championships at nationals in South Carolina.
The “nationals” event pitted top teams from all over Canada and the United States, vying for nine-ball, eight-ball and singles titles.
The win by R U Kidding Me? is the first time ever a Canadian team has scored gold at the event.
Nope, not kidding U.
“It was just great,” says team captain Dan Shoemaker.
“We were walking around the strip mall and people were coming up and shaking our hands. I felt like a movie star, it was fantastic.”
The local team plays regularly at Tony’s Billiard in downtown Guelph. After posting a regional victory, they got their trip to the nationals in Charleston, S.C., paid for.
But things didn’t start so well for the Guelph group.
“We were going in thinking we could do some damage, but when we lost 4-1 (to start) we were kind of in the dumps. It was kind of like: ‘Ah, we got nothing to lose, let’s go out and have fun,’ ” says Shoemaker.
“And that having fun took us right to the championship.”
“We kept moving on to the next round, then the next round, and I was like ‘Holy s***, this could actually happen.’ And it did,” says Emily Vander Vlugt, the team’s lone female player.
The victory was clinched by Paul Duell, the squad’s top player – the TAP league works on a handicap system – and he says he wasn’t stressed at all heading into the win that sealed the deal.
“Nope, it’s my job. I’m supposed to get it done,” Duell says.
For the victory, the eightsome, whose players range in age from their mid-20s to mid-50s, got crystal trophies and got to split $4,000 in prize money.
And of course, they earned the honour of being known as Canada’s first champions.
“It’s exciting,” says the team’s Jim Wheeler, who on this particular night at Tony’s is being hailed by teammates and himself as the “best scorekeeper in Charleston.”
He says: “To be the first team ever from Canada to win nationals – it’s cool.”
The team partied with some bevys after winning, but didn’t go overboard, says Wheeler.
“We celebrated big time. Had a few drinks, but had to fly out the next morning so we didn’t go too nasty,” he says.
Even Shoemaker, who perhaps defies the pool-playing stereotype – he neither drinks nor smokes – downed a celebratory shot after some affectionate arm-twisting from his fellow champions.
The R U Kidding Me? handle was hatched some five years ago, says Shoemaker, after a particularly tough run for the team, at one point called Go Ask George.
“We had a losing season and every time someone lost they were like: ‘Are you kidding me?’” Shoemaker says.
So a new moniker was born.
And, yes, while there is a fair share of kidding going on when the team plays, the players feed off of each other’s competitiveness, too.
“Now they’re more friends than pool players,” says Shoemaker, of his teammates.
“It’s a great night out with friends, and we actually have a really competitive team so it’s good.”
Says Duell: “I like the competitiveness. It’s a good night out and we have a good bunch.”
For Vander Vlugt, the victory was a particularly sweet one as she looks forward to exacting some revenge on her older brother, Eric.
It seems Eric is quite the pool player himself. He has an impressive collection of trophies, says his little sis, and he one day figured he’d flex his big-brother credentials on her.
“For punishment, he decided I would have to polish his trophies,” says Vander Vlugt.
“And I told him, ‘You know what? I’m going to join the pool league and I’m going to win trophies and get you to polish them.’”
This year, she won seven trophies, including the snazzy crystal one won all the way down in South Carolina.
“I’m just waiting for the dust to collect, and he’s gonna polish that up,” says Vander Vlugt, with a laugh.