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Open and Shut: Schmidt Rises to Elite Status, Shelling Luat in U.S. Open Final
Oct 1, 2006, 11:00 PM

CHESAPEAKE, Va. – John Schmidt, welcome to the first day of the rest of your pro pool career.

Schmidt entered this year’s U.S. Open 9-Ball Championship as just another journeyman pro – a guy with lots of promise and talent, but not much to show for it. On Sunday night, he left with a giant cardboard check for $40,000 and the knowledge that he had just vaulted into an elite circle of players that enjoy sponsorships and invitations to major events with big paychecks.

“I think this is going to open some doors for me,” said Schmidt, who bulldozed Filipino Rodolfo Luat in the U.S. Open final, 11-6. “I can’t wait to play in the Mosconi Cup, and maybe make my mark in pool. Hopefully sponsors will come. I need one!”

In fact, 33-year-old Schmidt had to be convinced to enter this year’s Open, and didn’t commit to going until a backer put up the necessary funds and his friend and mentor Bobby Hunter browbeat him into making the trip. Schmidt bought his plane tickets a day before the Open started.

Schmidt collected four wins before being sent to the one-loss bracket by little-known David Broxson, 11-4. Then Schmidt went on a tear, first beating Canadian Tyler Edey, 11-6, and then dealing an 11-5 haymaker to tempestuous Earl Strickland in a match that featured several heated exchanges between the players.

“I think that was a key match,” Schmidt said. “I’ve always kind of been afraid of Earl. Once I beat him, I thought, ‘I can do anything.’”

Schmidt’s confidence was further bolstered by wins over tough Filipinos Ronato Alcano, 11-8, and Antonio Gabica, 11-4. Schmidt also developed a habit of forging early leads against his opponents, taking the pressure off and allowing him to play at his more natural, brisk pace.

“I’ve been telling John for four years that he can play with these guys,” Hunter said. “It’s great to see him finally play the way he plays when he beats ME.”

Schmidt dusted fellow Floridian Robb Saez, 11-5, to reserve a space for himself in the final four on Sunday. In the one-loss semifinal, he got revenge on Broxson, 11-5. He then faced 2004 U.S. Open champ Gabe Owen, who had lost hill-hill heartbreaker in the hot-seat match against Luat. Schmidt again sprinted to a quick lead, 9-4, and stopped Owen before the baby-faced Midwesterner could reach his second final in three years, 11-5.

In the final, Luat took a page out of Schmidt’s book and raced to a 4-2 lead.

“I was so nervous that set,” Schmidt said. “I was lucky at 4-2 that he didn’t run away from me, because I wasn’t feeling too good. I really tightened up.”

Luat began to self-destruct, continually hooking himself and allowing Schmidt back in the match. With the crowd squarely behind him, Schmidt surged to a 10-5 lead before closing out the set, 11-6.

Schmidt stifled the urge to burst into tears after sinking the final 9 ball. He seemed slightly overwhelmed as he spent the next 30 minutes taking pictures with fans and signing programs, balls, racks, tables and placards.

“It’s nice to be thought of as a good player, because I had gone under the radar a bit,” he said. “I see guys who I know I play as good as with sponsors and invitations to events. … I think this will help me get the opportunity to get out and play those guys and show that I can play a little too.”