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Sky Steps Up

Quiet Kentuckian Skyler Woodward made a case as America's No. 2 with an impressive win at the World Pool Series in New York.

Story By Keith Paradise
Photos by JP Parmentier

Moments after his grueling, five-hour semifinal win over Albanian Klenti Kaci at the RYO Rack Classic in New York City, Skyler Woodward took a seat away from the pool tables at Steinway Billiards. Having faced what looked like certain elimination more than once during the match, the young Kentuckian wanted to gather his thoughts before the championship against the event's promoter and producer, Darren Appleton. "From the semifinals to the finals I didn't even hit a ball," Woodward confided later. "I just went and sat down, just to clear my head."

Woodward went unbeaten through a challenging field in the 8-ball battle.

The introspection proved to be valuable, as the 24-year-old from Paducah went on to defeat Appleton in straight sets, 6-3 and 6-2, to earn top honors in the third leg of the inaugural World Pool Series. Woodward, whose forte has been in bar table action, posted an undefeated record in the event, the first major "big table" tournament championship of his budding career. The victory was a continuation of a hot summer for Woodward, who finished second with teammate Shane Van Boening at the World Cup of Pool in June.

The WPS has produced a bevy of surprises, like Poland's Babica (above) and 17-year-old Larson (above).

"I think winning this will help me take my game to the next level," Woodward said. "This is a big win. A lot of top players were here, from everywhere." A few hours earlier, Woodward looked like he would be a spectator for the event's final, but he gutted out a three-set victory against 18-year-old Kaci winner of the WPS's Aramith Masters Championship in April. After slogging his way through narrow wins over Tommy Tokoph and Tony Robles, and grinding through a three-set win over Dennis Hatch, Woodward jumped to a quick lead in the race-to-six first set against Kaci in the semifinals. He appeared poised to take a commanding 5-2 advantage but pushed the 2 ball into the point of the side pocket's rail. "I was trying to hold the cue ball position and I hit the point," he said. "I was focused on the cue ball instead of the object ball."

Kaci appeared on his way to a second WPS win until the semifinal slipped away.

Kaci seized momentum after the miss, breaking and running in three consecutive games, plus taking advantage of a Woodward dry break to win the opening set, 7-6. Woodward struggled breaking in the humid summer conditions throughout the match and especially in the second set, where he broke six times and only pocketed balls once. The usually optimistic and laid-back youngster was so frustrated after another dry break in the set's sixth game that he slapped his cue on the table in frustration. Both players were hitting the rack squarely but the balls rarely spread effectively. "This table racked okay but it didn't break well," Woodward said. Despite the breaking issues, Woodward once again had an opportunity to take a 5- 2 lead in the second set but could not execute, misplaying position on the 15 ball and giving his opponent life. Kaci tied the match at 4-4 and was positioned to take control but failed to get proper position on the 7 ball, resulting in a missed cut shot. Woodward won the final three games to win the set, 7-5, executing a carom of the 4 ball into the side pocket off of the 9 ball as the cue ball drifted into position for the game and set-winning 8 ball.

Kaci appeared to be on his way back to the championship to defend his title early in the third set, capitalizing on three dry breaks by Woodward to jump out to a 4-1 lead. Slowly, the momentum shifted into Woodward's favor. A dry break by Kaci, followed by a victory in the seventh game cut the deficit to 4-3. In the next game Kaci misplayed a 7 ball in the corner, allowing Woodward to tie the match, 4-4. At this point, Woodward changed his breaking strategy to a cut break. The move began paying dividends, while Kaci's breaking fortune vanished breaking dry in the 10th and 12th game. Woodward used an open table and two break-and-runs to close out the set and the match.

"I struggled a little in the semifinals but I got through it," Woodward admitted. "So that was kind of a relief. I just tried to stay positive, like I'm going to get another chance, and I did. Then it was like a whole new game." Woodward made the most of the fresh start. The players traded the first six games of the first set, but Woodward used a couple of Appleton unforced errors to take a 5-3 lead. In the ninth game, Woodward used the strength of a textbook bank shot on the 1 ball to run out the rack and the set. Woodward and Appleton once again traded victories for the first four games of the second set, but Woodward pulled away just as he had done in the previous set. He capitalized on a pair of unforced errors and a dry break to take a commanding 5-2 lead, and closed out the match with a break-and-run, raising his cue in triumph to the applauding crowd. "In the final I didn't have my best stuff, but Sky played really well so obviously he deserved to win," said Appleton, who reached the semifinals in the first two WPS events before reaching the title match in the third. Overall, Appleton was pleased with his performance. In addition to his responsibilities as the event's promoter, the 41-year-old Yorkshire native had spent the previous two months in the United Kingdom caring for his ailing mother. He struggled in the early rounds, squeaking out an 11-10 victory against Corey Deuel in his first match and defeating Mika Immonen, 11-6, in the next round. But the former World 8-Ball Champion found his stroke in the middle stages, defeating fellow Brits Mark Gray and Imran Majid in straight sets to reach the semifinals against 37-year-old Radoslaw Babica of Poland. Appleton jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set and cruised to a 6-2 victory. Babica returned fire in the second set, capitalizing on a couple of open tables after dry breaks to defeat Appleton by the same 6-2 margin. "It was a bit of a scrappy match and the conditions were tough on the table with the humidity," Appleton said. A rare anger outburst by Appleton ultimately created a momentum swing in the match's deciding set. With the score tied at one, Appleton missed a makeable 8 ball and slammed his cue shaft on the table in frustration. Disgusted with his play and approach, his game changed dramatically after the display.

"The good thing is it really made me very angry inside, so after that I played great," Appleton said. "It sort of did me a favor because I was playing very tentative. I was playing scared really. It gave me a kick up the ass, and then after that I played a lot more aggressive." Appleton shut out Babica the remainder of the way, winning the set, 6-2. The event also featured the World Pool Series debut of 17-year-old April Larson, who avenged an 11-5 opening round loss to Corey Deuel with victories in sudden death shootouts against Jorge Rodriguez and Lee Kang. Larson's run ended at the hands of Canadian Jason Klatt, who defeated her 9-4 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Great Britain's Chris Melling also earned notoriety for one of the most creative run outs - one which also became one of the most shared on social media. Facing Immonen, Melling pocketed a solid ball on the break in the "take what you make" format and did not have a clear shot. Melling caromed the 4 ball into the 13 ball. The cue ball banked off of a side rail and caromed into the 13, which pushed the 4 into the corner pocket. With no clear path to his remaining object balls, the Brit executed a table-length swerve shot, pocketing the 2 ball in the opposite corner. After running the remaining balls, Melling had only the 1 ball left, which was near a corner pocket but blocked by the 8 ball. With Immonen's balls scattered in the center of the table, Melling fired a four-rail bank shot, sending the 1 ball past the 8 and into the corner pocket. (See "Wing Shots," pg. 12.) RYO was the third leg of four-event WPS created by Appleton. July's tournament had the lowest turnout of the Series, with only 62 entrants compared to 128 in January and 83 entrants in April. Appleton felt the RYO falling on the same weekend as the Japan Open and the Hard Times 9-Ball Open in California decreased the field's size. "What's disappointing is that those two events weren't on the calendar when I put my days up, but that's the pool world. It's like an ongoing fight to get to the calendar," Appleton said. With the World Tournament of 14.1 and U.S. Open 9-Ball Championships scheduled on the east coast in October, Appleton expects considerably more players for the final WPS event the Molinari Players Championship at the end of September. Additionally, having a potential top prize of $25,000 probably should help attendance. "That will be a pretty good purse so I think we will see a lot of top players from Asia," Appleton said. "I'm really looking forward to the last event. I think it will be great."

RYO Rack Classic
Skyler Woodward $10,000
Darren Appleton $6,000
Klenti Kaci $4,000
Radoslaw Babica $4,000
Mario He $2,500
Jason Klatt $2,500
Imran Majid $2,500
Zion Zvi $2,500