The American Poolplayers Association’s (APA) Down East NC League has been in Onslow County since 2017. In two years, the number of teams in the county has grown from four to 41 teams. That is more than any of the league’s other four counties (Lenoir, Wayne, Craven and Carteret). At least 60 players in the league are active-duty military members, many of whom are Marines based out of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, and there are more who are retired from the service. One of the active-duty Marines is Chief Warrant Officer Franco Blanchard of the 2nd Marine Regiment. Blanchard, who has been in the USMC for going on 14 years, has been playing in APA leagues across the country for nearly as long as he has been a Marine.

“Everywhere I’ve moved there has been an active league, which is really nice,” said Blanchard. “It’s a family that moves around with you.”

Blanchard’s stops in the Marine Corps started out in San Diego and Southern California before he moved to Virginia Beach prior to MCB Camp Lejeune. Blanchard worked as a bartender for some time until he made an abrupt decision to join the Corps. Finding a good hobby in the APA leagues was an impactful life decision that has served Blanchard for the better, he says.

“It was really good for me because it gave me a little bit of direction and gave me something to do productive with our time off,” Blanchard said. “As a young Marine it was pretty easy to kind of stray away and maybe get yourself in trouble.”

Down East NC league operator Don Humphreys found himself in a similar situation searching for a sense of community when he got started in competitive pool in his post-college days back in the 1980s.

“I was hanging around in pool halls just looking for something to do in the evening and ran into league play,” said Humphreys. “I had an opportunity to get with my friends once a week, have a few beers, socialize with another team and then do it again the next week. That was the part that I think drew me in. At certain times in my life it was a great support system, an extended family.”

It is that social element of family-like bonds that makes the APA experience so fulfilling for its members. Blanchard, who uses the league as a networking tool, now enjoys being the seasoned player who can take younger Marines from the league under his wing and teach them. From his perspective, a key part of the league is mentorship.

“Now that I’ve been in it a lot longer, if we get these junior Marines, these kids that kind of don’t have any guidance, then it’s nice for them to have an outlet outside of work with someone that has been in a little while that they can kind of seek guidance from and learn from,” Blanchard said. “A few people on my teams are lower ranked individuals and they’ve actually asked me to go promote them and do their pinnings and things like that.”

The APA was founded in 1979 and has become the world’s largest pool league with competitions in the United States, Canada, China and Japan. The incentive for playing in their leagues each year? A chance to compete for a paid trip to Las Vegas for the APA World Championships. Both Blanchard and Humphreys have competed at the tournament in Vegas and will forever relish the experience.

“Thrilling, exciting and intimidating all at the same time,” Humphreys said of his feelings when first walking into the sea of tables that is the convention room at the world championships.

For many members of the league that is the defining moment they are all shooting for. For others, they might just be content with the weekly matches and the comradery. For some, it is the non-demanding, flexible nature of the league that keeps them coming back.

“When I introduce the league to somebody they think, ‘Well I’m not good enough at pool,’ and I try to redirect them that it’s not about the pool,” Humphreys said. “Pool is almost secondary [to the friendships].”

Each team has eight roster spots, but only five are required to play that week’s match. Humphreys says some people who have other commitments either play early or late and are able to make it work with their schedule.

The league’s two hallmark formats are weekly 8-Ball and 9-Ball Team matches. To even the playing field, players are given skill rankings ranging from two to seven in 8-Ball (one to nine in 9-Ball), with high numbers being given to the more skilled players. Teams also have a “team skill maximum” of 23, so there is always a good mix of beginners and veteran players on each team. In 8-ball, skill levels determine how many games a player needs to win the match. Players are awarded points for the match based on margin of victory, and the winning team is determined by totaling individual match points. In 9-Ball, players are credited with one point for each ball they make with the 9-Ball being worth two points. To win a match, a player must be the first to reach the number assigned to their skill level. Similar to 8-Ball, match points are determined by the margin of victory.

“You don’t have to be a great pool player,” Humphreys said. “If you enjoy the game, come out and enjoy the friends.”

Blanchard, who says pool is very similar to chess, likes the challenge that the game presents.

“I love the mental aspect of (pool) and the strategy behind every game,” Blanchard said. “It’s a lot more complex than it seems.”

This month’s big winners at the Local Team Championship in Morehead City that will be heading to Las Vegas in August are Take It to the Pocket out of New Bern and Just Make the Ball out of Havelock. Jacksonville’s first-year team, The Sandbaggers, came up just short of the trip to Vegas.

For more information on the Down East NC League, visit denc.apaleagues.com or call 252-253-9848.