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Homemaker sets the table for pro career.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

LINCOLN CITY - This, now, is a woman's world: A tense ballroom, illuminated only by billiard table lights and ESPN cameras. A hushed crowd ... until the click, clack, thunk of a pocketed ball prompts a burst of applause. Competitors such as Ewa "The Striking Viking" Laurance and Allison "The Duchess of Doom" Fisher vying for a serious purse - by which we mean $100,000 in prize money, not an oversized handbag.

Inside Chinook Winds Casino, 64 of the world's best female pool players are playing for the Women's Professional Billiard Association National 9-Ball Championship.

In rural Junction City, Martha Hartsell, 43, is more familiar with a different kind of woman's world, that of homemaker. Coziness, not tension, characterizes her rural home near the Eugene airport.

On the front of her refrigerator, magnets hold photos of her three adult sons and other family members. On a Sunday, the clink, clank, thud of tumbling blue jeans sounds from the laundry room off the kitchen as she readies work clothes for her contractor husband and sons. The clean smell of drying laundry mingles with the buttery beckon of warm chocolate chip cookies.

From the time she and her husband, Steve, started a family soon after their 1982 marriage, Hartsell knew she wanted to stay home.

"I went to beauty college," she recalled. "But before I was even done, I knew I didn't want to have to please the public that much. I got my license, but I basically just do my family out of my house."

Long, close match

Back at Lincoln City, the rookie is nervous. For this first match of her first professional championship tournament, she has drawn 12th-seeded Maureen Seto, a tour veteran and 1998 Canadian National Champion. Twice already, Seto has lifted her cue up to slide balls to her "win" column on the abacus-style scoreboard above the table.

But Seto has missed a crucial shot in this third game.

The rookie steps up to the table, frowning at the difficult shot left to her. She chalks her cue, studies the table, then, compulsively, chalks again. Standing on tip-toe, she stretches her 5-foot frame nearly the length of the table, her left leg extending off the floor - and sinks the 9-ball to win her first game.

"Nice shot, Martha!" shouts a Chicago man who has quickly joined Hartsell's Eugene-area entourage in cheering on the unseeded upstart.

The determined 43-year-old would battle Seto for more than two hours - to an 8-8 tie - before losing the decisive 17th game.

It was just two years ago that Hartsell decided to fill her empty nest with a 9-foot pool table and give the game she loved a serious run.

She joined the Northwest Women's Pool Association, a semi-pro league encompassing the Western United States and Canada. Competitors there earn qualifying points towards the WPBA Classic Tour. As NWPA 2003 Sportswoman of the year, she earned more than $6,000 this year - and an invitation to the WPBA National 9-Ball Championship at Chinook Winds.

Her relatively late start and rapid success are "remarkable," said Ruth Welte, who has followed Hartsell's progress as assistant editor of Billiards Digest in Chicago. Simply qualifying for the WBPA Nationals is "a big deal," she said. "This Tour is the best female 9-ball field in the world."

Success at pool requires a "sort of bizarre set of talents," the editor explained. "You have to have excellent spatial thinking skills. You have to have a lot of discipline, a willingness to spend hours alone, practicing. And you have to have some innate talent and athletic ability."

She likens success at pool to success as a professional musician.

"Most of the truly, truly top pros start very young," Welte explained.

"They are often the children of pool hall owners," she said. "One of the interesting things in Martha's case is how late she started. To start any time past your teens and be any good at all is quite amazing."

Hartsell picked up a cue stick only twice while growing up in west Eugene's Danebo neighborhood.

"I played one time at a friend's house," she recalled. "And once, when I was in high school, I went with some friends to a bowling alley. ... I ended up playing pool with a manager instead of bowling. I liked it. I had good hand-eye coordination, and I was able to make shots lots of people couldn't.

"Most people, when they're first beginning, can only hit the straight-on shots. They don't even see the angle, how you have to pick a certain point on the object ball to hit. From the very beginning, I could."

Mom's night out

Still, it would be 10 years before Hartsell would pursue the game, even for fun.

In 1988, she and Steve bought the Noti Pub (yes, that Noti Pub, the one made famous when then-Labor Commissioner Mary Wendy Roberts nailed the previous owner on a civil rights violation for posting racist signs.)

Her husband managed the tavern, she remained home with their boys.

"I had three kids under the age of 5," Hartsell said. "My getaway, though, was playing in the tavern's pool league once a week. And once a year, we went to the (Billiard Congress of America) national and international tournaments in Reno or Las Vegas."

She enjoyed the game so much, she began taking lessons. She learned crucial strategy for the game, which involves sinking balls 1 through 9 in strict rotation. She learned to think beyond the immediate shot, to "get shape" - positioning the cue ball for the next shot, and the one after that.

"You're always looking, like, three balls ahead," she explained.

With lessons and practice, her standings began improving each year in the international amateur tournament. She went from 50th to 12th to fourth before finishing first in 1995.

Hartsell had no illusions of going further until two years ago.

"I was in Las Vegas for an amateur tournament and, in conjunction, they had a pro tournament you could pay to go watch," she explained, her blue eyes lighting up.

`As soon as I saw one match, I was like, `I wanna do that!' '

With the youngest of her children about to finish high school, she had time to begin training in earnest. A 9-foot pool table - two feet longer and a foot wider than the "bar boxes" of amateur play - now fills the family room of her manufactured home. She practices six hours a day, seven days a week.

Young woman's game

Hartsell's late start represents a particular challenge in the professional tour, where "mid-30s is considered old," Welte said.

Case in point: Hartsell lost her second match at Lincoln City to 22-year-old Tiffany Nelson, who turned pro at age 13.

Though disappointed at being eliminated in two straight, Hartsell played well enough that she was approached by a potential sponsor interested in backing her appearance at all 10 WBPA events next year.

She finds the offer is both exciting and intimidating, because it sets up a tug of war between her two worlds.

"It would mean a lot more practice - at least eight hours a day," she explained. "And it would mean a lot of time away from home. My husband and I are going to sit down with the sponsor and talk about it, but I'm still trying to decide."

Karen McCowan can be reached at 338-2422 or kmccowan@guardnet.com.

CAPTION(S):

For a newcomer to the game, Martha Hartsell has had remarkable success in her professional pool career.
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Title Annotation:Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 30, 2003
Words:1256
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