DECATUR — When forming a billiards team, an important step is finding the right team name.
The names are often funny (Group Therapy) or possibly brutally honest (Grumpy Old Men), highlight the members’ ability (Make It Work, The Regulators) and ideally include a billiards pun (Cue Anons, The Good, the Bad and the Wrackless, Smackin’ Wracks).
For Illinois state master level player Kim Watkins, her Decatur Area Pool League (DAPL) team — That’s Nice — goes with the funny approach.
"It's more sarcastic where if something bad happens or somebody makes a really lucky shot and you just feel like, ‘well that’s nice,’" she said. "It's interesting, if you go out and Google banned team names, you will get a list of some things that just blow your mind."
Watkins, her teammates in That’s Nice, and many others in the DAPL are in competition this week at the American CueSports Illinois State Association State Tournament, hosted at the Decatur Conference Center through Sunday.
Decatur has hosted the tournament before in 2012 and 2013 and following last year’s tournament cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, players are excited to get back to championship competition. The state tournament is typically scheduled for March but it was pushed back into the summer to allow more time for the COVID rates to continue to fall.
"It is getting back to being normal again and pool players are itching to just have some kind of normalcy and some kind of good tournament," American CueSports Illinois State Association president Dan Taylor said. "We have players from literally all over the state that come to this from Quad Cities or Rockford and Springfield."
Watkins, who owns Biggen's Bar & Billiards in Decatur with her husband Kevin Watkins, saw firsthand the impact the COVID-19 shutdown had on the sport. League competition was stopped and bars were closed, dealing a double blow to the local community. On May 31, 2020, Decatur's largest billiards establishment, Starship Billiards, was destroyed by fire and the loss of its 14 billiards tables is still felt around the community.
"We still have less of a table count in town because of (the Starship fire). There really isn't any place that could have absorbed the 14 tables that were at Starship, but we've got a couple of places that have added a couple of tables. We would love to be able to have a building size large enough to be able to add five more tables in there, but you just can't," Kim Watkins said. "The real challenge was the shutdown that made it hard for a lot of people to play, especially if they didn't have a table that they can shoot at home.
"It hasn't really damaged our desire to want to play. It has caused us to do some creative things to get enough space for people to shoot."
Overall attendance at the Illinois championships is down this year but Taylor suspects next year's numbers will be closer to normal.
"We still have about 750 players that are coming out to this tournament and normally it's right around 1,200-1,300 players," Taylor said. "We're down in numbers, but next year, I think we will be back to our normal numbers and we’re continuing to grow every year. There are so many leagues around the state of Illinois and we have a very large population of local players in Illinois."
As Decatur's only female master level player, Watkin has several 8-ball tournament titles and competes nationally at the Valley National 8-Ball League Association (VNEA) World Pool Championship in Las Vegas.
For Watkins, reaching the master level took a lot of dedication and a true love of the sport.
"I am committed to four nights a week, twice on Sunday and before I started traveling for my work, I played every night of the week," Watkins said. "You have to love the game. You have to play as much as your time and your focus allows. You can shoot every night of the week and if you don't focus on what you're doing, you're not really going to get the benefit of it.
"Some people get better by doing drills and doing practice and other people get better with competitions. It just depends on the style of player."
The team of Watkins, Robin Beckham, Tina Carter and Erin Thompson finished second in the women's intermediate team competition at the VNEA Championships in May. Beckham also finished second in the senior competition on Wednesday at the Illinois Tournament.
"I did not expect that. I felt like I was very focused and I felt like I was ready to play. I'm not a nervous player. In tournaments, I get pretty focused," Beckham said. "The competition was tough here and they were all here to win."
Kevin Watkins, who is also competing this week, met Kim Watkins through the sport and during their first match against one another, she let him come out on top.
"We played 9-ball and she swears up and down that she let me win but I don't think she did," he said, grinning. "She said she let me win because she had it in her mind I was probably going to ask her out. I have people ask me all the time, 'Does it bother me that she is better than you?' and I say absolutely not."
Kevin Watkins views billiards as a great equalizer, since nearly anyone can play the sport, regardless of age, strength or quickness.
"It's a sport you can play when you are 8 and when you're 88. Kim's father is 88 years old and still plays in the pool league," he said. "I've had three back surgeries and I have degenerative spinal arthritis. I can't do very many things, but one thing I can still do is play on a pool table.
"I see so many people that are in their 60s, 70s and 80s that are still playing pool because it doesn't require the physicality of softball or baseball or basketball. They can still go out and compete and enjoy themselves while doing it."
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten