TJ Steinhaus, an 18-year-old MHS grad, overcame 1,086 other competitors to win the Open division of the BCAPL National Championships in July
When TJ Steinhaus first joined his dad at pool league six years ago as a 12-year old, many could see already that he had a gift for pool. But few could have imagined how far, and fast, that gift would take him.
At the end of July, Steinhaus, a 2012 Monticello High School graduate, proved himself as one of the top pool players in not just the state, but the country. That’s when he traveled to Las Vegas to compete in the Billiard Congress of America Pool League National Championships.
The 18-year-old signed up for the open division, along with 1,086 other competitors. It was his first time in the tournament, as well as his first time in Vegas.
“I was in complete amazement,” said Steinhaus. “Seeing like 300 pool tables in just one or two rooms is just unreal. And Vegas was quite the experience too.”
Steinhaus wasn’t new to big tournaments. He entered having already won the Junior Nationals tournament the past couple years. But this was a new stage, a new level, and he wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
“I just wanted to win a few matches and get rolling,” said Steinhaus. “I knew I could do well. Winning the tournament just wasn’t what I had in mind right away.”
But by the end of day one, with his dad and pool mentor Mark Steinhaus, as well as a friend from home, cheering him on, Steinhaus had shown he was there to stay.
He cruised through the opening day matches, beginning play at 9 a.m. and playing through the day, in the wee hours of the next morning, without taking a loss.
When he came back to the Rio, the site of the tournament, the next day, it was more of the same. He continued piling up wins till he found himself advancing from one of the original brackets into the final big bracket, full of 128 of the top players left from the opening 1,087.
At that point, he’d already hit the goals his father, an accomplished pool player himself (his highest national championship finish is 33rd place), had set.
“I was kind of hoping he could make the top one hundred,” said Mark Steinhaus. “I felt pretty strongly that he could.”
Once there, Steinhaus showed no signs of slowing down. He continued to win matches and advance, surviving a couple of scares in the race to five matches set up, until he got to the final 12.
In that match, Steinhaus found himself down 4-1. He battled all the way back to 4-4, or “hill-hill”. He even had an opportunity to take command of the ninth and deciding game. But he missed it, and wound up taking his first loss of the double elimination tournament.
Still, his confidence, nor his momentum, were shook.
In fact, even when the 18-year-old trailed in ensuing matches, with his back up against the wall, he remained confident.
“Most people, their anxiety gets built up,” said Steinhaus. “You’re getting nervous. I didn’t feel that at all, because I felt like I was shooting good. I just kept rolling along.
I was pretty confident I could still win.”
It was the demeanor that his dad tried to instill in him at a young age when TJ played with Mark and Teresa (his mom) in the basement. And it was a demeanor they continued to emphasize during TJ’s trips to pool league with dad.
That demeanor, a combination of laid back confidence and good sportsmanship, was on full display in Vegas.
“One of the biggest advantages TJ has is even when something goes wrong, he doesn’t let it get to him,” said Mark Steinhaus. “His mother and I, we both tried to teach that to him.”
With that attitude, Steinhaus hung on to win a couple a close matches, advancing through elimination rounds, all the way to the final match.
In the finals the 18-year old squared off against a guy from Illinois, who was still undefeated in the tournament. Steinhaus would need to win twice.
Steinhaus won the first matchup, 5-2, forcing a final match for the Open National Championship.
The players alternated breaks and alternated wins. Eventually the match was at 4-4, the next game would decide the champion, as well who would receive the first place prize of $10,500 versus the second place prize of $6,500.
“I basically can say I played one game for $4,000,” said Steinhaus, with a smile.
And it was played in front of nearly 35 Minnesotans cheering him on, as well as random spectators from other places.
Still, playing in his first-ever BCAPL National Championship, Steinhaus was undaunted.
“I really didn’t show too much nervousness,” he said. “I was feeling confident, because I was playing pretty good throughout the rest of the tournament.”
The game moved quickly, and as it neared the end, Steinhaus found himself at the table with a clear shot to put the 8-ball in the corner and secure a championship.
“At the end, when he left me a shot, I knew it was time to get out,” said Steinhaus.
So he did, becoming the youngest player ever to win the tournament, and taking just another step in his journey upward.
“His game has really improved in the last year,” said Mark Steinhaus. “He’s definitely in the top percentage of players in the state. I’m excited to see what he can do next year.”
Next year may hold an attempt at a professional tournament. It will certainly hold a lot more tournaments around the area, plus a return trip to Vegas, where Steinhaus will jump to levels to compete in the Masters division, the second-highest level possible.
“I feel its going to be harder, but I feel like I can compete,” said Steinhaus. “By that time, I think my game will be another step forward. There is a lot to learn about pool, and I feel like I keep learning different things and improving my game.”
In other words, the best is only getting better.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at firstname.lastname@example.org