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Staff Photo by Charles Boothe:
Winning the title of national 9-ball champion in his age division garnered Zach Hampton a trophy and scholarship. The pool cue company J. Pechauer is sponsoring him and gave him $2,000 worth of pool sticks, as well as shirts and hats.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer
The first time Zach Hampton picked up a pool stick no one knew about the natural talent waiting to be unleashed.
They know now.
Since Zach was only 11 years old when he started playing, no one had a clue that three years later he would win a national championship.
But he did.
Zach, a rising 9th-grader at Franklin County High School, returned last week from a trip to Wisconsin for the Billiard Education Foundation's 24th annual Junior National 9-Ball Championships, competing against the best pool aces from around the country in his age division. And he walked away the winner.
The tourney at Milwaukee was held July 11-15, and Zach, the son of Tim Hampton of Rocky Mount, did not get off to a good start in the double elimination competition.
"I lost the first game," he said, adding that he lost to Sergio Rivas, a hometown favorite in Milwaukee.
That loss may have ruffled the feathers of many players, but not Zach, who on his first trip to the competition had to challenge many players who had been there before.
He then reeled off eight wins in a row and had to play Rivas again in the semi-finals. This time, though, he beat him 7-5 to guarantee himself a ticket to the finals.
"We had to play 'race to 9' in part of the finals, and play by professional rules," he said, explaining that it's a match (or race) to a set number of games, often five, seven or nine.
The first player to win that set number of games wins the match. Winning a game occurs any time a player hits the lowest numbered ball first and pockets the 9-ball without committing a foul.
"You have to break and shoot them in order," he said.
Zach lasted through the 54-player field in the finals, beating one of the favorites, Manny Perez, 9-6 for the title in the 14-and-under boys division.
The schedule was grinding, he said, often competing for hours at a time.
But that doesn't bother Zach.
"I have played for 23 hours straight before," he said.
Zach also competed in the Super Billiards Expo in March in Philadelphia, finishing third in the 17-and-under division.
Tim Hampton said he had no idea his son would be so good at pool so quickly.
"He was known as the kid at the bowling alley (in Rocky Mount) with the white pool stick," Hampton said, adding that it was clear right away his son had talent.
"He's like a sponge," he added. "He watches other peoples' techniques, then practices."
Hampton had placed a pool table in the family's garage, but after realizing his son's potential, he moved it to the basement.
"Zach has his man cave," he said.
For Zach, pool is a matter of practice, practice and more practice.
"I've just learned on my own, basically," he said. "I'll try to get a pro trainer later."
Most of the competitors in Wisconsin already have pro trainers, he said, but he doesn't think about that. He just plays to win and describes himself as "very competitive."
Shooting pool, Zach said, is a matter of knowing how to hit the cue ball to get the exact result desired.
In an impromptu demonstration, Zach described each shot and the technique he uses, and accurately predicted the results, even the exact location where the cue ball will stop, setting up the next shot.
"You've got to know what english (spin) to use (on the cue ball)," he said, admitting that's it's easier said than done and a lot of strategy has to be used, including playing it safe sometimes, not trying to make a shot that is next to impossible.
That's when, he said, he hits the cue ball and makes sure his opponent doesn't have an easy shot either.
"He's just got a gift," Hampton said. "I've never seen anybody in my life to get good at something so quickly. He can tell you exactly where that cue ball will go, just like you would draw it out on paper. He can see patterns, and he's a fast shooter, too."
With those patterns and precision, it may not come as a surprise that Zach's favorite subject in school is math.
For now, though, it's all pool, with an occasional ride on his dirt bike.
Zach already has beaten many good pool players of all ages and has won a slew of trophies and plaques, including a large trophy and a $250 education scholarship for the Wisconsin tourney.
He does most of his playing in Roanoke at Guys and Dolls, and many of the successful regulars there have helped him.
J. Pechauer, a pool cue company, has given Zach about $2,000 in customized pool sticks and a case, as well as shirts and hats. One of the pool sticks is inscribed with "Zach the Attack."
He has also been called Zach "Hitman" Hampton.
The win in Wisconsin qualified him to compete in the world finals, Hampton said, which will be held in Europe this fall.
"We're not sure of the exact location or date yet," he said. "But we are going."
Hampton said many of his son's pool buddies in Roanoke are helping raise money for the trip.
Although Zach said he wants to eventually get an engineering degree, turning professional in pool is also on the agenda.
On his man cave wall are autographed posters of professionals, including Allison "Duchess of Doom" Fisher, the 15-time world champion in the Women's Professional Billiard Association.
Zach met Fisher in Milwaukee, where she was the guest speaker at the tourney banquet.
All of these accolades, traveling and rubbing elbows with professionals have not gone to Zach's head, though.
On the AZbilliards website, which chronicles pool tournaments, a description of Zach after he reached the semi-finals in Wisconsin said: "(Zach) Hampton's light-hearted demeanor and determination carried him through the one-loss bracket."
"I'm extremely proud of him," Hampton said of his talented son.