Community in the Corner Pocket

The Herald | Community in the Corner Pocket

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Story by Jonathan Saxon
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

It’s Monday night in Huntingburg, and while most business choose to shutter at this time, Ron’s Place has a barroom full of folks gathered around its three pool tables. Jamie Smock walks up to one of the tables to start his night.

Smock sets up his shot, sinks the solid yellow 1-ball and follows with four more balls in quick succession. He pauses for a second to figure out how to deal with the solid purple 4-ball, which he knocks into the corner pocket. He goes right back to the same corner pocket to sink the solid blue 2-ball. Now only the 8-ball is left. He lines up his shot and banks the 8-ball off a cushion before it lands in the opposite side pocket. It looks like a cool shot, but unfortunately it didn’t go into the pocket he called, which lost him the game. Smock walks over and shakes his opponent’s hand, who jokes that he didn’t even have to shoot this game.

The players gathered at Ron’s are not a bunch of random barflies who decided to pick up pool cues on a whim. They are, instead, members of the Dubois County Pool League, and gather at Ron’s, JR’s Bar in Jasper and Oasis Bar & Grill in Ferdinand on Monday nights for competition and fellowship that only a cue ball can provide. The league’s teams rotate among the three venues depending on the schedule, which runs from September to March. The league also has a summer session that runs from May through July.

The league, which has been in existence for 30 years, started as a means to get more traffic at the local watering holes. The bar owners needed a way to lure more patrons through the doors during the slow period at the beginning of the week, so they partnered with Amusement Games Inc. to create a solution that was a win-win for all involved.

Jim Aul of Wickliffe, left, plays as his opponent, Greg Woods of Bretzville, watches at Oasis bar & Grill in Ferdinand on March 2.

“We looked at it and said, ‘How can we increase traffic flow and help our locations out?’ We want our bars to succeed at what they do,” said Jeremy Heim, 48, owner of AGI. “We got with the Valley National Eightball Association, [became] a charter holder for them and started running pool leagues. It’s been a good marriage for Amusement Games and the bars.”

AGI sponsors the Dubois County league — as well as other leagues across Spencer, Orange and Lawrence counties — and Heim acts in an overarching, administrative capacity to collect member dues and handle site or logistical issues. He used to also be the league coordinator before handing over the reins to Becky Mehling of Jasper, a longtime league member. He said it got to a point where he was “wearing too many hats” in trying to balance the responsibilities of AGI and the league. Mehling’s experience and familiarity with the league members made her a natural choice.

“She knew everybody,” Heim said. “Everybody respects her, and she was a good fit for what Amusement Games needed to do to grow the pool leagues.”

Mehling, 40, grew up with a pool cue in her hand. She was introduced to the game by her mother, and spent years bouncing around the Perry, Spencer and Orange county pool leagues. She settled into the Dubois County league in 2011, and took over as the league coordinator in 2019. She believes her management background was a factor in Heim’s decision, but she had two other positives that may have outweighed her prior professional experience.

“I behave myself in the bars,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t tend to get too crazy, and I like to follow the rules.”

Mehling jokes that her role involves a lot of “babysitting,” but in actuality she is responsible for getting everyone squared away at the beginning of the season, distributing league information, attending to rules issues that might come up and collecting everyone’s scores after league nights. She also takes care of registrations for the tournament that’s held during the league’s banquet, which brings the four pool leagues under the AGI umbrella together to celebrate the end of the season in March. On top of all of that, there are times Mehling has to be a mediator and try to cool things down when competition gets the best of the members.

Becky Mehling of Jasper, center, congratulates Kim Satterfield of Paoli after Kim won two games while playing at JR's, at Ron's Place in Huntingburg on March 2.

“It’s like with anything, you get a group of people together [and] there’s going to be conflict,” Mehling said. “The conflicts aren’t real bad, but I do have to settle down both sides. I’ve not always been the favorite person, but I try to be fair.”

Such instances are few and far between because, while the members are competitive, everyone just wants to have fun. League nights are a welcomed wrinkle to its members’ schedules, and makes them look forward to Mondays.

“We all just go out and have a good time,” said Smock, 42, who lives in Dale, but works at OFS in Huntingburg. “It’s good to get out [and] hang out with your friends. It’s not really about the game itself, it’s about hanging out with everybody you know. It breaks the monotony to the whole work week.”

“It’s a night out to do something other than sit on the couch,” added Shari Percifield, 47, who played in the Spencer County league for more than 15 years and switched to Dubois County in 2019. “It’s one of the things me and my husband enjoy together.”

The communal aspect of the game is one of the biggest draws that appeals to the league’s members, who consider themselves a family in many ways. The game attracts everyone from the blue-collar worker to the more well-to-do in the community. It even helps mend some fractured relationships, for at least a bit of time anyway.

“We actually have a couple of people that are related that don’t get along outside of here,” Percifield said. “But they set that aside for pool league, and you would never know that.”

“I’ve known these people for years and years,” added Mehling, who noted some of the friendships she’s developed go back more than a decade. “It makes me feel like I have a common bond with people that I have nothing else in common with. We may have different lives, but we appreciate this game. When we’re in between matches, we’re talking [and] getting to know things about each other. There’s a moment where you bond. Pool brings us together.”

Scott Fieber of Jasper, left, and Claudia Weyer of Jasper, right, play games of pool at Ron's Place in Huntingburg on Jan. 20.

With the various people the league attracts come different ways to play the game. There are some who play fast and move around the table like there’s no tomorrow. Others play at a more deliberate pace and set up their shots according to a script in their head. Then there are some who play more defensively and focus on denying their opponents good shots. There’s a common goal for the game, but each player takes a different route to get there.

“For most of my shots I’m just trying to figure out what I can actually make,” Claudia Weyer said. The 23-year-old is a newer player to the league and plays mainly for the fun of it. But she’s working to improve. “I’ve not gotten great at banking yet, [and] some of my cuts aren’t great. [But] I’m learning.”

Smock, who has been playing for more than 20 years, focuses on maximizing table control in his matches. He likes to direct the cue ball around and chain his shots together instead of being at the mercy of wherever the cue ball happens to land. It’s an approach that’s led to winning the league’s banquet tournament four times.

“If you can control the table, you control the game,” he said. “Some people just get up and hit balls and are great shot makers. Your good shot makers are going to be all over the table, nothing is going to be planned. It’s about consistency.”

Becky Mischler, 34, is another player who is a recent addition to the league. She always wanted to join, even though she hadn’t played it much before. But now she has the opportunity to play since her kids are old enough to watch themselves. Her big challenge is ignoring the distractions while she plays, but she’s getting better at increasing her focus at the table.

“It’s sometimes hard to block out everything else in the room,” Michelin said. “[I] just try to relax and not worry about people watching. Just do your thing.”

Becky and Jesse Mischler of Vincennes watch others play as they wait for their turns at JR's in Jasper on Feb. 3. Becky plays on the team "We're Solids Right?" and Jesse plays on "Pain Train". "They're the power couple of pool," Leigh Oeding of Ferdinand said.

Charlie Hightower, 50, has played pool his whole life, and loves the challenge that comes with league play. He’s working on elevating his game from what he calls a “barroom player” to something more sophisticated.

“Barroom players just shoot to shoot,” he said. “League players play what they call safeties. If you don’t have a shot you’re sure you can make, a lot of the league players hide the cue ball and leave their opponent a bad shot. It becomes a chess match. You’re trying to leave yourself a higher percentage shot and giving them a lower percentage shot each time.”

But Mehling looks at pool as a game that can be tailored to the needs of the player. It offers a little something to everyone. You can play it anytime of year since it’s an indoor activity, and it’s accessible enough that someone could afford to set up a table and cues right in their home. It’s a game that a person can play throughout their life, and it can be used to give someone time away from the world if they’re going through a rough patch in their life. Its versatility covers a lot of ground.

“It’s whatever I need it to be,” Mehling said. “It was something I could do with no one. It can be teams, and that’s great, but I’m a loner. If you’re thinking about something else, it gets your mind off of it. Plus it’s a game you can play no matter how old you are. [When] I’m 80 years old, I know I’ll still be able to get on a pool table.”

Currently, the Dubois County league has 13 teams with about 50 regular players. AGI, as a whole, has 32 teams and more than 150 players across all four county leagues. The league has players at all ranges of age and skill level, and they’re very welcoming of new members into their ranks.

“It’s very easy for people to come in,” said Hightower, who just started playing in the league this past summer. “It’s a good community of people.”

Mehling and Heim are always looking to add new blood to the league to keep things fresh and grow the competition pool. They encourage people to give the league a try if they’re interested, and say there’s no reason to feel intimidated or insecure about their skill level.

“It’s not about being good,” said Heim, who admitted he still has some growing to do as a pool player. “The only way to get better is to play better players. We’ve got a group of players that will take someone under their wing and teach them how to play. That’s what I enjoy about a lot of the players.”

Heim and Mehling consider themselves pool lifers, and they have ideas about how to grow the league. Heim would like to add more barroom games to AGI’s offerings, and Mehling wants to create avenues to introduce pool to younger people.

“We’re capable of doing anything,” Heim said. “We can run dart leagues, corn hole leagues or whatever, and just manage what goes on from the back side. We used to run some countywide dart leagues years ago. Then the dart players fell off. [I] haven’t gotten back into pursuing that yet, but we may in the near future.”

“I have goals like trying to get in schools [in the form of] a billiards club,” Mehling added. She also wants to organize pool workshops with kids through places like the Teen Outback in Huntingburg. “The goal is to get the youth up playing, there’s a lot of places they could play that aren’t bars. I would like to get a junior league going. I go out to [Vincennes University Jasper], and I was trying to get a tournament out there. I’d like to get back into that. I would like to see the younger generation come up playing around here.”

But until then, Mehling will continue to enjoy the current pool-cue-wielding company she keeps.

“We’re a bunch of smart alecks that like to joke around,” she said. “And at the end of the day, we want to have fun.”

 




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