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Running the Table: Inaugural high school billiards league takes hold in the High Desert 

The inaugural Bend high school pool league has taken root in Bend, thanks in large part to the efforts of Marshall Fox, owner of Fox's Billiards.

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It's a little after four on a recent weekday afternoon and Carly Fristoe stands over what must look like a sea of green felt, surveying her next shot - what could be the winning stroke to close out her match against classmate Devon Holler, who hovers nearby hoping the match will be extended. Just a few feet away, patrons have packed the bar area and are chatting noisily over cocktails and post-work beers, oblivious that Fristoe and Holler are making state high school sports history.

Fristoe seems equally unfazed by the din of the bar area as she measures her shot, checking the angle with her cue before bending down and drawing on the eight ball. It's then that I'm reminded that this isn't the national nine-ball finals at the MGM Grand Casino as Fristoe scratches, stuttering forward with her cue instead of crisply and deliberately striking the ball. The tip of her cue rolls off the top of the white ball, which moves maybe an inch. Fristoe shrugs her shoulders and steps away and Holler moves in for the kill placing the cue ball behind the eight ball and cracking it into the corner pocket.

Holler, a shaggy-haired Bend High School sophomore, moves around the table and shakes Fristoe's hand as they congratulate each other on a match well played, or at least played. So comes to a close the final game in the week's match play of the inaugural Bend high school pool league, a fledgling but growing extracurricular activity that has taken root in Bend, thanks in large part to the efforts of Marshall Fox, owner of Fox's Billiards, who serves as the coach for Summit, Bend and Mountain View.

Fox grew up playing pool in Washinton state, where he and his friends would take refuge after school in a local tavern where a friendly owner would allow the boys to hang out and shoot pool in a back room away from other patrons. Fox recalls being shuffled out the back door by the owner on those rare occasions when police paid a visit. But when Fox opened up his own bar and pool hall on Newport Avenue a few years ago, he wanted to create a venue that was welcoming to adults and young adults. There was just one problem, Oregon state law and its liquor enforcement arm prohibited minors from being in an establishment where beer and liquor are prevalent. That didn't seem right to Fox, who likens the experience at his bar to that of a bowling alley where parents are free to drink a beer and play without having to leave their children at home.

"My philosophy is, If I can drink and bowl or drive a golf cart with a glass of rum in my hand and my kid is in the seat next to me, then why can't I play pool?" Fox said.

A former bartender, Fox set out to change the state laws, meeting with officials from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, who were ultimately swayed by his argument. Last summer, they tweaked the agency's rules to allow establishments like Fox's to allow minors in during some limited periods during the day and early evening hours. While teenagers make up only a small portion of his business, Fox was now able to pursue his real interest, establishing a local high school pool league, which he launched last fall with the cooperation of the Bend-La Pine School District.

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Fox approached the three local high schools and found fertile ground for his pool league initiative. Students came out to initial information meetings and latched onto the idea of competing in a league against their peers. Some, like Conner Satterfield, a Bend High junior, have already sharpened their skills on basement pool tables. Others were new, or nearly new, to the sport. Fox started with basics, how to hold a cue, how to make a bridge and let the kids work their way up, building skills with a combination of drills designed to emphasize fundamentals (yes, billiards has them) and match play. Some like Toby Pedrick, a lithe sophomore with a mop of brown hair and a wry smile, picked up the game quickly. Pedrick had played billiards as a kid at the local Boys and Girls Club. Under Marshall's tutelage, Pedrick advanced quickly, picking up ball control, or masse, and bank shots within a few weeks. Pedrick, who also plays the bassoon and saxophone, conceded that he's not the most physical person even though he enjoys playing racquetball. The pool league has given him an outlet to stoke his competitive fire without strapping on a pair of shoulder pads.

"I like it because it feels more relaxed, but it still competitive. Football and basketball are more physical, but I'm not a physical person," Pedrick said.

In addition to bassoon players, the league has also opened up a whole new arena to girls like Fristoe who are able to compete on an equal footing with their male classmates, something rarely seen in high school sports. Deanna Merril, a 15-year-old sophomore at Bend High, came to her first match in December with her boyfriend, Satterfield, and found herself immediately interested. A gregarious and athletic student, Merrill had played soccer competitively, but the pace and atmosphere of billiards suited her better, she said. Soon she was playing regularly and improving quickly, beating some of her male counterparts.

"I don't believe this is a guy's sport, but I do believe this is a historically male sport, so I think it's cool that I can be here and be as feminine as I want to be and still fit in," Merrill said.

Fox, who charges a $25 fee for students to join the league and plans to host a first-annual state tournament in May, said he is aware that billiards offers a niche to students who might not have another outlet.

"We don't make any money on this and I don't want to. We just want to get them involved in the sport," Fox said.

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