Sabrina Guadagno, left, and Eileen Shaw in their pool team’s home turf at Peter’s Place on South Broad Street.

It’s a Friday night and 10 women are playing pool in Peter’s Place on South Broad Street, something that wasn’t happening as recently as four years ago.

“It’s like a girls’ night out,” Sabrina Guadagno says. “You go out and play some pool, have some drinks, and enjoy the night. A lot of times you get busy and you don’t get to see your girlfriends that often. This is like a set date.”

The women play 8-ball matches on ladies teams as part of the Trenton division of the American Poolplayers Association (APA) of South Jersey. The nights are fun and lively but also show a competitive side.

“Everybody quiets down, there’s some whispering,” Eileen Shaw says. “You can feel the tension in the air when it gets serious.”

No ladies team has been better under pressure than the Frantasticons, a team that consists of Kerri Banning, Francine Case, Guadagno, Marie Guindin, and Shaw.

“We have a blast,” says Shaw, the team captain whose workday job is as a medical receptionist for an ENT office; she also tends bar at Kennedy’s Bar on South Clinton Avenue. “We laugh. It’s so much fun. You get to hang out and play pool. It’s an excuse sometimes to get out.”

The Frantasticons won the Trenton division last year, then made history when they won the World Pool Qualifiers tournament in Atlantic City in June to become the first ladies team from Trenton to qualify for the American Poolplayers Association 8-Ball Team Championship in Las Vegas in August. The Atlantic City tournament is the third largest pool tournament in the world.

“It was such an adrenaline rush,” says Guindin, who lives in Trenton just six blocks from Peter’s Place and is a Shop Rite manager during the day. “It was so exciting. We were super concentrated. In Atlantic City we went out and walked the boardwalk and were praying, ‘Please, God, let us win this.’ We took deep breaths and said, ‘We’ve got to do this.’ We went inside and took it down. It was pretty amazing.”

The Frantasticons team added to Trenton’s rich history of pool success. A team from Sportsman’s Pub on Lalor Street in Trenton won the 8-ball nationals in 2012. In 2007 a team out of Kennedy’s Bar on South Clinton Avenue won the 9-ball national championship. Olde Liberty Tavern also supports a ladies team in the Trenton division. Barb and Walt Markowitz started the APA of South Jersey in the early 1990s and the current owner, Dave Piotrowski, purchased the league in 2009.

“I was very proud of them,” says Peter’s Place owner Mikey Peters, who supports two women’s teams in the Trenton division. “I can’t explain the excitement when they got out there and represented the APA and Peter’s Place.”

Marie Giundin, left, Francine Case, Eileen Shaw, Kerri Banning, and Sabrina Guadagno celebrate the APA Championship in Las Vegas.

It was the first trip to nationals for everyone on the ladies team. Shaw had qualified for nationals before with mixed teams, but she hadn’t been able to play in them due to having her first child in 2010 and her brother’s wedding in 2011. She sealed the nationals trip with the winning shot.

“She was starting to run out the balls,” Guindin says. “She had ball in hand and she was getting ready to go for the 8-ball, and it was in an awkward spot. She was going to put it in the one spot and she changed her mind and moved it. They thought she was going to miss the shot, but it smacked the 8-ball in, and that’s how we won.”

It was a historic moment that they could all celebrate together.

“Once we made it to Atlantic City, we were determined to make it to Vegas,” says Banning, who lives in Hamilton. “We stuck by each other. We cheered each other on. Once we found out we were going to Vegas, it was the best. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything like that before.”

The Frantasticons didn’t win a match in their first trip to nationals. Case was the only individual to win in head-to-head play.

“They were really good,” Case says. “The couple teams we played against, they were great. They were respectful and fun. Some of those women play better than men.”

Following the competition, Guadagno took advantage of the setting in Las Vegas to marry her fiancee, Joey Guadagno, the league manager of the APA of South Jersey, to top off the trip. Her family flew out for the wedding that they planned in connection with the APA championship party.

“We were friends for a very long time before we dated,” Sabrina Guadagno says. “People who play pool tend to gravitate toward people who play pool. If you have a hobby and the person likes your hobby too, that helps.”

The Guadagnos play in mixed leagues together and against each other. Reaching nationals with a ladies team was something that Sabrina Guadagno wasn’t sure would ever happen, but ladies’ opportunities could be on the rise again. It’s been more than three years since Case and Shaw were sitting in Peter’s Place and Case wondered aloud why there wasn’t a women’s pool league.

“We had a men and women’s team of 9-ball,” Case says. “We were having so much fun. We were all friends and said we needed to start a women’s team because we would have fun, and we did. We had to get a certain amount of women’s teams together to start it in our area.”

The Trenton division began in 2015 with six teams. It’s down to four teams that compete on Fridays.

“When I first started, I don’t even know if there was a woman’s division,” Guadagno says. “I started out with a local bar with friends. Over the last five years, it’s grown in certain areas. In other areas, it stays the same. If you’re adding another night of pool and you have a family and all that, sometimes it’s not easy to do.”

Peters, 72, has run his establishment for 40 years. He knows many of the current players’ parents, and he has been like family to them. He has always enjoyed good shooters in Peter’s Place and recently added two brand new Diamond pool tables that are state of the art.

“I like the tables,” Banning says. “It’s a small space, but it’s very family-oriented. It’s like Cheers. You’re out of place if you’re not known there. We call it home base. That’s where everyone hangs out.”

Men and women play pool at Peter’s Place every night, and Peters remembers a time when women’s teams were more popular.

“There were pool teams all around Trenton and outside the area, in Bordentown, in Pennsylvania bars, Robbinsville, and Hamilton,” Peters says. “Our girls’ team was so fantastic they won it 10 years in a row. Then it trickled down and got a little slow. Now we achieved a goal where we made it to nationals.”

Peter’s Place is hoping it sparks more participation and another ladies team qualifier for nationals, although the Frantasticons would have a different look. Guindin isn’t competing during the current session because of family commitments, though she will make occasional Friday nights to see her teammates, and Case recently moved from her native New Jersey to Alabama for a new opportunity. It’s a challenge to recreate the winning formula with a new group that has to not only play well but mesh personalities.

“I don’t think we did anything different,” Banning says. “We were a little more united. I don’t think anybody was more bonded than us.”

The Frantasticons team ranged in age from mid-30s to mid-40s. Guadagno, the highest rated player of the team, plays five nights a week on a variety of teams.

“The more often you shoot, you do get better if you’re playing more often,” Guadagno says. “The league itself has some good players that give good advice and help out. The higher ranked players are all willing to help out the lower ranked players and give advice.”

Shooters balance playing pool with the demands of family, job, and life, and every effort pays off. It’s possible for a female player to compete six nights per week.

“It’s definitely a learning experience,” Guindin says. “It takes time. When I used to shoot, I just used to shoot. You have to get down on the table, you have to breathe right. You have to hit the ball just right and chalk up. There’s a whole strategy to it. It’s not just hitting a stick into a ball. It’s about learning to know where that cue ball is going to stop to hit for the next ball that you need to go for and lining up for your next shot.”

Shaw got her start playing competitively on teams as soon as she turned 21. Guadagno has been playing for 20 years. Guindin started almost nine years ago, and a former boyfriend bought her first stick. Banning and Case have been playing seven and eight years, respectively, and jumped at the chance when Shaw asked them to play together in the new women’s league.

“I had a lot of friends who played in a league,” Case says. “I kind of held off and just played for fun and never got in a league. And then one of the league operators, Joey, convinced us to start a team. Ever since then, I liked it and joined multiple teams.”

“It’s a way to get more ladies involved,” Shaw says. “There used to not be a lot of women involved. It’s opened up the door to be involved.”

Being involved opened up a door to history for five women. They represented Trenton pool in the ladies division at nationals, a perfect finish to what’s a growing Friday night tradition.

“If I’m going to be on a team, I want to have fun,” Guadagno says. “It’s not a job. This is supposed to be fun.”

The women are hopeful that they will see more ladies teams in the area. Interested individuals or teams can reach the APA of South Jersey at 609-526-2000.

This story was originally published in the February 2019 Trenton Downtowner