Kate Parker was skeptical during a 2006 triannual pool tournament at Dundalk's Green Room Billiards club, and with good reason.

"I've got a feeling we're going to Vegas," she remembered one of her teammates saying. And despite the banner adorning the lobby — "This way to Vegas" — Parker still had her doubts.

"We had a shot at Vegas and we lost," she said. "So we went into the losers' bracket; we had a shot at Vegas and we lost."

Even after the two defeats, Parker and her team turned things around, going on an unlikely run. And through a combination of luck, skill and quirks in the rules, the Elkridge resident's team was off to Las Vegas for the American Poolplayers Association National Team Championship with a wild-card bid.

And come Friday, and running over the course of two weekends, more than 100 teams will be competing for the same honor at Maryland's APA spring program tournament. Of those teams, 29 will move on to the national contest — 16 from eight-ball play, 11 from nine-ball play and two from the masters classification.

With an eight-member team out of Baltimore winning the national nine-ball tournament and a $15,000 purse in 2010, the 850 players who will be in Dundalk on Friday will know what is at stake and will be looking to run the table.

"The celebration when that last ball falls — the teams go crazy," said Chris Ricko, who co-owns the Green Room with her husband, Gary. "It's like they won the Super Bowl and the World Series all rolled into one. … When officials announce that their team has won, they go crazy."

The tournament, including the third round and finals June 30, will award more than 140,000 in prizes for the amateur teams. The 29 Vegas-bound teams will also have the bragging rights over the more than 10,000 players in Maryland leagues.

But they wouldn't dare exercise those bragging rights.

"We always finish things up with shaking hands, whether winner or loser," Parker said.

"It's just nice."

Terry Justice, the Maryland league operator for 29 years, agreed.

"They're having a camaraderie on a weekly basis," he said of his league's members. "It's nice to get together, have a couple beers, socialize with some friends — we want them to have fun."

Justice has seen the league grow from only 30 members when he started as league operator to 10,000-plus.

And Justice, along with the players in his league, understands why membership continues to rise, and encourages others to join.

"There's a lot of great sportsmanship where we shoot," Parker said of her home pool hall, Baltimore Billiards in Linthicum Heights. "We've had a lot of fun. It's been great for getting you out, just meeting people."

Through a handicap system, members at all skill levels are on an "equal footing," Justice said, meaning even the beginning and intermediate amateurs from Maryland have a shot to make it to Vegas. And one of them could be claiming that prize at the end of the month.

"If you make it to Vegas, it's an accomplishment," Parker said. "It's a hard thing to do."

Justice encouraged anyone interested, regardless of experience, to sign up at maryland.apaleagues.com.

dappenfeller@baltsun.com

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