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US Open Final Four
Oct 1, 2006, 2:37 AM

CHESAPEAKE, Va. – The final of the longest-running major championship in pool will be missing some of its accustomed starpower as four middle-tier players vie for the 31st annual U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship crown on Sunday.

Gabe Owen, the 2004 U.S. Open titleholder, would appear to be the favorite, heading into his hot-seat match Sunday with 49-year-old Filipino Rodolpho Luat. The real surprise is the roster for the one-loss semifinal, set between American straight-pool specialist John Schmidt and little-known David Broxson of Ft. Walton Beach, Fla.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” an ebullient Schmidt said after steamrolling Florida’s Robb Saez, 11-5, to reach Sunday’s final four. “I wasn’t even planning on coming to the U.S. Open. A friend of mine entered me. [Coach and mentor] Bobby Hunter talked me into coming. I made the plane reservations a day before the event started.”

With the four top players of 2006 missing from the field, the U.S. Open is anybody’s ballgame this year. Germans Ralf Souquet and Thorsten Hohmann had committed to playing in Matchroom Sport’s World Pool League event, along with Filipino sensation Dennis Orcollo. Efren Reyes, winner of the International Pool Tour’s World Open 8-Ball Championship and its $500,000 top prize in September, decided to forego the U.S. Open. Between the four of them, the players have won more than a dozen pro titles and $1.2 million in prize money this year.

Although the IPT’s giant purses may have taken some of the shine off the U.S. Open this year, the prize money is nothing to sneeze at. The winner will take home $40,000, and second place is worth $15,000.

And it’s still a prestigious title. “The U.S. Open is always kind of special for me,” said Owen. “I love to play here. This is my favorite 9-ball tournament, even more than the world championships. There’s a lot of history to it.”
Owen has made this trek through the winners’ bracket before, and his experience showed in his 11-9 win over upstart Broxson in the no-loss semifinal. Broxson took a lead at 6-3 with sharp and deliberate play, but Owen stayed focus despite some sloppy moves – including scratching on a 9-ball shot – and battled back to tie the match at 9-9. He took the final two racks for the win, sending Broxson to the losers’ bracket.

Schmidt’s final two matches of Saturday were more anticlimactic, as he sprinted to a 9-1 lead against Filipino Antonio Gabica before winning, 11-4, and bolted past Saez, 10-3, before sealing the victory, 11-5. Loose and chatty in both matches, Schmidt bopped from shot to shot like the outcome was predetermined. He’d execute brilliant safety plays without a moment’s thought, and almost magically fall into position in the hardest of situations.

“I’m definitely in the zone,” said Schmidt, whose previous two trips to the Open ended in middle-of-the-pack finishes. “I hate to go to sleep. I’d almost rather play my next match right now.”

In this, his first trip to the U.S. Open, Englishman Darren Appleton continued to make a case of the quality of pool play across the pond. He quickly made a name for himself this year with a tied-for-seventh finish at the IPT’s North American Open 8-Ball Championship in July, and now looks to become a fixture on the American pool circuit.
“I’ve dominated English pool for the last 10 to 15 years,” said Appleton, who defeated Broxson to earn a berth in Sunday’s final four. “With American pool, I think the financial rewards are there now. I’m a very dedicated player. This is what I’m going to do now for the next five years or so. … I don’t have any ties right now; I figured, if I don’t do it now, I’ll never do it.”

Appleton slipped past Finland’s Mika Immonen, 11-10, to meet Broxson on the one-loss side at midnight Saturday. They went toe-to-toe to forge a 5-5 tie, but Broxson had more in his tank, and was able to pull out the 11-5 victory.

A regular on the South East Open 9-Ball regional tour, Broxson has already secured his best finish at the U.S. Open. He stalled at 49th place in his debut at the Open in 2005.