Tom Keaton enjoys going over to the Ewing Senior and Community Center on Lower Ferry Road in the afternoon to shoot pool.
He isn’t alone.
The center has become a popular meeting ground for more than a dozen avid pool players who can get competitive while sharing laughs and stories.
Players are there daily, and they’re still reveling in their undefeated first season together as the Ewing Pool Sharks in the Central Jersey Senior Billiards League.
“We don’t know what a break is,” said Keaton, president of the Pool Sharks. “My wife and father-in-law call me a pool junkie. We can’t get enough of it.”
The Ewing Pool Sharks consists of 17 members with 15 of them playing in matches. Players must be 55 years or older though, the league also makes concessions for handicapped players.
The passion and time spent on the tables paid off. Not only were the Pool Sharks unbeaten, but they were dominant.
The Central Jersey league had 11 teams with each team facing each other twice. Ewing never lost in 20 matches, and they unseated four-time defending champion Piscataway by recording the first unbeaten season in league history.
“We didn’t know much, but we certainly knew our capabilities,” said Bob Hess, another member of the Pool Sharks. “When we started to win, we just kept going. For our team, our members would be playing if there was a team or not. They eat, sleep and drink pool. I’m not sure how much the other teams do it. It’s not just something to pass the time.”
The passion and time spent on the tables paid off. Not only were the Pool Sharks unbeaten, but they were dominant. They finished 54 points ahead of runner-up Piscataway. For team play, each of the 15 players competes in an individual best-of-three matches with the winner earning a point for the team.
“We have some pretty good shooters,” Keaton said. “The early part of the league, most of the guys were there consistently every day and practicing and learning from each other. We saw we were pretty good.”
The players had been looking for some way to compete more. They used to have Friday in-house competitions, but the league was a step up in commitment.
“Some of the guys were talking about playing in a league,” Keaton said. “We were playing once a year with the South Brunswick club. They connected us with the Central Jersey Senior Billiards League. I took the guys we had and played against some of the teams that were already in the league. They voted us in because our guys wanted to be a part of something. They liked the competition.”
The Ewing players come from backgrounds with decades of experience. Keaton played in the American Poolplayers Association 20 years ago, but hadn’t competed in anything seriously since then.
“I knew the guys we had were good shooters and it would be tough to beat us on a consistent basis,” he said. “It was a challenge. We have 17 players. The first five or so are pretty good shooters. Most teams only have two or three tough shooters.
“Some of the players were APA players. They have the experience of shooting in competition as I did. When you shoot in a league like that, you play all around the region.”
‘We know going into next season we’ll have a big bullseye on our back… Other teams were going, ‘We want to be the first team to say we beat Ewing.’
According to the statistics posted on the CJ league website, Hess and Larry Jones were the top Ewing players percentage-wise. Jones went 16-2 while Hess was 8-1.
“I never played in the bar leagues,” Hess said. “It was a big difference playing on a team. All of a sudden, you’re not just playing for yourself. Your performance has an impact on how the team does. I would get nervous. I still get nervous.”
Lamont Karvin, John Schwartz and Luis Ruiz all went 16-3 for the Pool Sharks. Ruiz served as a de facto coach of the Pool Sharks this year, and he and Keaton met long ago while playing pool.
“When I met him, we were in a small billiards amusement center,” Keaton said. “I had a different attitude about pool then, it was all about competition. I had a love for the game and passion for the game that’s much different. Today, I just enjoy shooting.
“He and I used to shoot back then. If you missed one time, you were done. That’s how well he shot and how well I shot. The way we shoot now, it’s more strategic. It’s a game of chess on the table.”
Other Ewing team members include Irv Higgenbotham, Bernie Hill, Larry Jones, Richard Jones, Rodney Jones, Bernice Luse, Mike Payne, Larry Roberson, Benjamin Scott, Robert Smith, Glen Spady, Robert Tucker and Frank Woolford.
“Our team is very diverse,” Keaton said. “We have a retired police officer working in another field now. I retired as a public service employee. We have someone who is social worker, someone in corrections, other guys that work in construction. I don’t know what they all do. All the team members that I’m aware of have been shooting pool for quite a while.”
That love of pool is what keeps bringing them together. “Our guys love the game,” Keaton said. “They were shooting in pool halls when they grew up, and they came in and saw someone shooting and saw the tables and wanted to be a part of it. Even if we weren’t in a league and competing against other teams, we’d still be there shooting every day.”
They also enjoy the camaraderie. They make the time to play frequently together and feel fortunate to have a place at the ESCC to do so.
“One of the reasons we have such a good team is we get a lot of support from Ted Forst (township director of Community Affairs, Recreation and Grants) and Jenneate Spann (Senior Citizens supervisor),” Keaton said. “She’s always there encouraging us and supporting us. We just recently got a 9-foot professional table. The supervisor was instrumental in helping us get that.”
“It’s some place to play,” Hess said. “Most of the pool halls in this area have closed. I ran into a guy I used to play with, and I’ve run into guys I used to see years ago and they greet me like a long-lost brother. It’s a little different atmosphere than what you find in a bar room.”
Keaton agreed: “I like the fellowship with guys. Being a part of the team was something I like doing. Different guys have different reasons. For me, it’s about enjoying fellowship with the guys on the team and even the guys you’re shooting against. The winning is the icing on the cake.”
The Pool Sharks were happy to be able to share their success. It was a team effort that guided them to the historic season.
“Before last year, it was whoever won the most games,” Keaton said of the scoring system. “This year, it was who won the most games with the most points. Every player is valuable to the team because it’s collective.”
Almost all of the Ewing team is expected to return next year. The season resumes in October, and the Ewing Pool Sharks are looking forward to the chance to defend their title and continue their winning ways in a game for which they have unmatched passion.
“We know going into next season we’ll have a big bullseye on our back,” Hess said. “That’s what it became at the end of the season. Other teams were going, ‘We want to be the first team to say we beat Ewing.’”