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The Cream Rises
Story by Mike Panozzo
Ask a player to describe the Derby City Classic (for maximum value, wait until the eighth or ninth day!), and you're bound to get rolled eyes, extended exhales and shaking heads. Part iron man triathlon, part tough mudder, all circus, Greg Sullivan's annual homage to Johnston City (with a doff of the cap to the Lexington Opens of the late '80s) is a nine-day test of skill and endurance on the green sward, requiring steely nerves, multi-tasking abilities and a reliable alarm clock (for the older players who actually sleep).
Sullivan, the founder of Diamond Billiard Products and the brainchild behind the "DCC," as it is known, has been producing the Classic since 1999. "I found there were things that I liked and things that I didn't like about tournaments," Sullivan said in an interview on AZBilliards.com. "I decided that I wanted to put on the type of tournament that I liked."
Sullivan's creation caters to two distinct crowds - action players and railbirds - and both get their fill in the ballrooms of the Horseshoe Southern Indiana hotel and casino in Elizabeth, Ind. For players, the DCC buffet offers nine options, from the Big Three - 9-ball, 9-ball banks and one-pocket - to mini-tournaments for each, a bank pool ring game, a straight-pool challenge and the semi-invitational 16-player Bigfoot 10-Ball Challenge. For railbirds, signage to the contrary notwithstanding, the opportunity to post a friendly wager or twenty is too juicy to pass up … particularly in the 24-hour "action" room, where $30,000 head-to-head matches offer heavy sweating for insomniacs.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the Derby City Classic is the confusion that is created by overlapping events and continuous re-draws. Participants are required to be around the arena first thing every morning, as draws and re-draws for match assignments during the day's multiple discipline action are served as breakfast.
"Sometimes I don't remember what game I am playing," said all-everything legend Efren Reyes, who is teetering on 60.
Indeed, watching Reyes sprint from table to table seemed like something that should be reported to AARP. After beating Orcollo to reach the One-Pocket final, Reyes raced to the main playing area to take on Karen Corr in 9-ball, knowing that he would then have to race back to the TV arena to compete for the one-pocket title. Even the fittest of players can get mentally and physically fatigued by the pace.
"Switching games was hard to get used to the first couple of years," said reigning World 9-Ball Champion Thorsten Hohmann, among the most focused and fit. "One year I was doing well in one-pocket, and it totally ruined my 9-ball stroke.
"But, it's what makes Derby City special," he said, smiling. "It's non-stop, all day, all night, all pool. If you are doing well in all the divisions, you never see the outside."
Hohmann, a 9-ball and straight-pool threat in any field, uses Derby City to learn.
"I know I'm not a threat to win the Master of the Table [the title awarded to the player with the best combined finishes in the main three events], but I like learning the other games. In banks, I like to watch John Brumback. I like his style. And in one-pocket, I really like watching Scott Frost."
Specialists like Frost and Brumback always do well at Derby City, but in the end, pool's cream usually rises to the top … and never was that more evident than in January. Reyes, Shane Van Boening and Dennis Orcollo swept the big events, and grabbed the top "challenge" events as well. Reyes, a Derby City no-show in 2013, but still magical, dazzled with his performance in one-pocket, winning the event for an astonishing sixth time. The win marked Reyes' first since his four-year run from 2004-'07. And Van Boening squeaked past a game John Morra to win the 9-Ball title and played otherworldly on Diamond's intimidating 10-footer to add the Bigfoot Challenge to his resume.
But it was Orcollo who shined brightest in 2014. At 35, Orcollo is cementing his name as one of the best players to wield a cue, and at the Derby City he came within four wins of sweeping all three main events. In addition to winning the 9-Ball Banks division, the Filipino star placed fourth in both the One-Pocket and 9-Ball divisions. For good measure, Orcollo won the George Fels Memorial Straight-Pool Challenge.
Not surprisingly, Orcollo's multi-discipline magnificence earned him the $20,000 Master of the Table honor.
The highlight of Orcollo's week was the 361-player 9-Ball Banks title. With the DCC's buy-in option, which allows players one shot to buy back into the single-elimination divisions, Orcollo's stellar play allowed him to save his buy-in like a Get Out of Jail Free card in Monopoly. The reprieve served him well when the banks field was pared down to three, with countryman Francisco Bustamante and Earl Strickland joining Orcollo. A flip of a coin determined that Strickland would receive a bye, and Bustamante made quick work of Orcollo.
The luxury of the buy-back allowed Orcollo a guaranteed spot in the final. Meanwhile, Bustamante took care of Strickland, 3-1.
The final match began with Orcollo breezing through the first two racks for a 2-0 lead. Bustamante cut the lead to 2-1, and was within a ball of forcing a deciding game but failed, leaving Orcollo the ball he needed to seal the match. As the case ball disappeared, Orcollo leaped into the air and hopped around the arena. Bustamante looked on in amusement.
"Bank pool isn't popular in the Philippines," said an elated Orcollo, now $16,000 richer. "I play banks once a year, and this is my first big bank pool win. I think my best finish before was 16th. It was a lot of fun. There are so many good players.
"I just practice and watch the best," he continued. "I learn from watching Efren, Shane and Justin Hall.
"But beating Bustamante was really tough. After he beat me the first time, I watched his match against Earl to see how the table was playing and I made some adjustments. I knew I had to make the last ball and avoid another game."
Absent in 2013, Reyes' return to the One-Pocket division was a welcome sight for DCC's knowledgeable fan base. And the legend didn't disappoint. He surged through the 298-player field with surgical precision, advancing unbeaten, along with Shannon Daulton, to the final seven. Naturally, Orcollo was within earshot, as was Frost, Hall and Josh Roberts. One by one, the pretenders fell, until Reyes and Daulton remained. In the battle of one-hole titans, Reyes prevailed, 3-1, to earn his sixth title and $12,000.
As was expected, Van Boening was the class of the 263-player 9-Ball division. What was not expected, however, was Van Boening's title match opponent, nor just how close the South Dakota Kid came to losing.
Van Boening rebounded from an early loss to Mike Dechaine, 9-8, to reach the finale. Along the way, Van Boening exorcised some post-Mosconi Cup demons with a spectacular 9-0 whitewash of Darren Appleton. After stopping Orcollo's hopes for a second crown, 9-7, Van Boening reached the final three, alongside young Canadians John Morra and Jason Klatt. Van Boening received the bye in the re-draw and enjoyed the view as Morra escaped with a 9-8 win over Klatt.
Morra, who won the DCC Banks division in 2012, but has been quiet since, broke out to a 4-1 lead in the final. Van Boening battled back, and the match seesawed from 5-5 to 7-7. After reaching the hill first, Morra failed to pocket a ball on the break, and Van Boening cleared to knot the match. In the case rack, Morra played a deft safety on the 2 ball, pinning it between the 9 ball and the end rail, only to watch in disbelief as the 2 found its way into the side pocket. Morra kicked at the 3, but left Van Boening the opening he needed to close out the match.
"It was really disappointing," said the 25-year-old Morra. "But I had my chances. I was up, 5-3, and failed to get out with ball-in-hand, then made a great break on the hill and didn't have a shot at the 1. I should have pushed out, but I tried a low-percentage safe and didn't take my time. Too much anxiety, I guess."
For Van Boening, the unexpected opportunity netted $16,000, while Morra settled for $8,000.
Van Boening also nabbed the Bigfoot title, shooting an otherworldly .908 Total Performance Average on the big stage in his 11-7 final match win over Dutchman Niels Feijen. Feijen had knocked off Germany's Ralf Souquet in one semifinal, while Van Boening had stopped Bustamante in the other.