At 12, April Larson is the youngest Minnesotan to win a spot in a world pool tournament. It started with an unsinkable bond with her dad.
April Larson was 7 years old the first time she walked into a billiards hall. "The next thing I know, she's pocketing ball after ball," said April's dad, Dave.
He started bringing her along to his weekly pool league to alleviate the constant bickering between her and big sister, Brianna.
By age 8, April's signature curlicue hair gave way to her signature pool cue -- courtesy of Dad, of course -- and she'd logged hours of shooting time on the family's pool table above the garage.
"Pretty soon she started playing on my adult leagues -- and winning," Dave said. "Really beating up pretty well on some of the better adults around."
April turned 12 in April. In July, she became the youngest pool player from Minnesota to win a major national tournament. "Am I a pool shark?" she wondered aloud. "Yeah, I'm totally obsessed with pool."
Now the seventh-grader at Olson Middle School in Bloomington has a chance to take her obsession to the international stage with a trip to Qatar, where she will compete at the most prestigious tournament she's ever qualified for: the World Pool-Billiard Association's Junior World 9 Ball Championships.
"We have local players who make it to the national tournament all the time," said Shooters Billiards general manager Duane Marquardt. "But for someone as young as April to qualify for the world tournament, that's pretty unusual."
Despite the accomplishments and accolades, April's not one to brag.
"I know I'm fairly good," she said. "I can at least make some shots ... but I need to improve my mental game."
April's mother, Angie Larson, recalls the moment she realized that her youngest was going to do just as she wanted to.
"She's always been bull-headed," Angie said, launching into a story of when April's older sister was learning to ride a bike. "April was only 4 or 5 but she wanted to learn, too," she said. "'Just a minute, honey,' we told her. We turned around and she was off riding the bike."
For a kid whose travels have extended only to Disney World, a trip to Qatar is the chance of a lifetime -- and one she might miss out on unless the family can raise enough cash.
Enter the support of the local billiards community. So far, two pool halls have volunteered to hold tournaments to raise funds for April's trip.
"Everyone's pitching in to make sure I can go, and it means a lot to me," she said. "People really love this sport. ... I guess the adults think kids like me are the future of pool."
Practice makes perfect
To prepare for the world tournament, April spends three hours a night at her pool table, making shot after shot under the watchful eye of her dad. The two have become a force to be reckoned with in the local billiards scene, a partnership they both cherish.
"My dad and I share something together that's a huge part of my life," April said while holding onto her studded leather cue case, a hand-me-down from her dad. "There's nothing better than that."
While Dave might not be a national champion pool player, it doesn't get by him that he's raised one.
"Half the time she beats me," he said. "I can't wait for the day when I can't beat her at all. It won't be long."
Not yet 5 feet tall, April has to reach for some of her shots, but she usually beats the other league players at Farmington Billiards.
"It's pretty phenomenal," said Dan Rider, owner of the pool hall. "She's a good shot-maker and understands the game. It's her attitude, too. She loves the game and has no fear of her competition."
In the 'zone'
On a recent Wednesday night, the Larson family is there to watch. Even Brianna. (They "get each other" now, said April.)
Before she picks up her cue, April seems like any outgoing 12-year-old. Her voice is soft, sweet. Behind glasses, her eyes are kind. She chats with everyone, from the 17-year-old boy playing three tables down to the 83-year-old man watching his own daughter play.
But when it comes time to play 58-year-old Millie Thurmes, April's usual friendly smile fades into a look of concentration.
After breaking the rack, April grazes the table, taking stock of her options. Dave leans on a nearby table with his arms crossed, eyeing his daughter's move. She misses.
"It's OK, kid," he reassures her, then coaches: "You think you could've done something different there?"
April shakes it off. Except for the crisp cracking of balls, the room has grown quiet. There's a hush when she calls her final shot: "Eight ball, side pocket."
Everyone turns to watch. She leans over the table, raises her eyebrows above her glasses and steadily pulls back on the cue. She sinks the eight ball, winning Game 2 of a five-game match.
Nobody's surprised. Not even her opponent.
April turns her attention to her dad, who's begun his own match at the next table. Now, it's her turn to be the fan. "Nice shot, Dad! You got this!"
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715