Junior International Championship Player of the Month – Sofia Mast

Sofia Mast

In her first month as a teenager, Sofia Mast of Tampa, FL qualified to represent the USA in the World Junior Championships, scheduled for Sept. 9-11 in Las Vegas. She qualified by finishing as the runner-up in the 18 & Under Girls division of the Billiards Education Foundation’s 2021 Junior National 9-Ball Championships, held from July 27-31 at the South Point Hotel Casino and Convention Center in Las Vegas.

She competed, as well, in the 14 & Under Girls division and the 8-Ball Open event. She finished 4th in the former and in the latter (the event with the most entrants; 65), she won a double hill battle on the winners’ side against Savannah Easton and lost her second match to Riley Adkins, who shut her out. It was her first experience, outside of league competition near her home, of competing against a boy. In her first loss-side match of the 8-ball event, she battled another boy, Carlos Jinez, to a short double-hill (1-1) before being eliminated.

“He was playing really well,” she said of Adkins, adding a note about a lesson learned that she’s unlikely to forget. “I’d miss and he’d run out.”

Sofia has also been a regular competitor on the Junior International Championships (JIC) series of events being conducted by On The Wire Creative Media at locations around the country. For most of those events, six of them to date, she had yet to become a teenager. Competing in both a 13 & Under division and an 18 & Under division, she was (still is) the series’ top-ranked female competitor in both divisions. Of the six events held to date in the 13 & Under division, she has won or been the runner-up in all of them. In the 18 & Under division, six events, she has won twice, been 3rd once, 4th once and 5th twice. She retains her top spot in that division by virtue of having earned points in all six of the events. She and Tatum Cutting are the only two girls who have won that division twice and are expected to be among the group of invited junior players who will compete in the series’ finale, scheduled to coincide (more or less) with the 2021 International Open in Norfolk, VA, presently scheduled for October 22-30 at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel.

Through these most recent events, she has also discovered a just-turned-teen rival, Maryland’s Skylar Hess. The rivalry shows signs of being able to last. They’ve battled back and forth for supremacy in the JIC events and at the Junior Nationals, squared off in both the 18 & Under and 14 & Under divisions. Hess won their opening match, double hill, in the opening round of the 18 & Under tournament. Sofia won three on the loss side and drew a rematch. This time, Sofia won, double hill. She went on to defeat Savanna Wolford 7-3 in the quarterfinals and was eliminated 7-3 by Tiana Jiang in the semifinals. Hess took their opening match in the 3rd round of the 14 & Under division 7-5 and made it to the hot seat, where she lost a double hill battle versus Hayleigh Marion. On the loss side, Sofia was denied a semifinal rematch when she was defeated in the quarterfinals 7-4 by Bethany Tate. Hess downed Tate in the semifinals and then lost in the finals to Marion 11-9 for the 14 & Under title. There are two more JIC events before the series finale and the Mast/Hess rivalry is likely to be renewed.

And this is all just since January of this year. Sofia turned 13 in the midst of it all on July 2.

On Friday, July 30, the BBTV organization live-streaming selected matches of the Junior Nationals throughout the week, opted to broadcast two matches, simultaneously, switching back and forth from one to the other. One was a match in which Sofia was competing and another was a match which featured former Junior National Champion April Larson, playing in an Open 10-Ball event. Larson, of course, is a five-time Junior National Champion; three times in the 14 & Under Girls division (2012-2014) and twice in the 18 & Under division (2015-2016). Sofia Mast is just getting started, actually nine years after Larson’s first appearance, but technically, only eight. Mast qualified and would have appeared in the 2020 Junior National Championships had they been held. Watching that Friday stream, switching cameras between Larson’s match and Mast’s, led one to thinking about how much has changed in the years between their arrivals on the junior competition scene.

Ra Hanna and Sofia Mast

The landscape of junior competition has changed considerably in those 8/9 years, as evidenced by this new batch of Junior National Champions and the ones emerging from On the Wire Creative Media’s Junior International Championships, which could eventually join forces to create something of a regularly scheduled, unified set of junior competitions, opening it up to an even wider group of nationwide youngsters, just itching to get to the tables. Looking back on the era from which she emerged, Larson sees the increased opportunities available in the era in which Mast is developing, and while there is a certain amount of “Where were all of these opportunities when I was coming up?” she is enthusiastically supportive of the emerging juniors she is meeting and for some, already a mentor.

“I’m thinking more like ‘Thank God it’s finally happening,” said Larson. “That’s where I’m at right now.”

“I’ve had ample opportunities, with BEF and the Atlantic Challenge,” she said, “and I’m just glad they have an outlet, that there’s a junior tour for them to compete in, consistently.”

Larson knows quite a few of the current batch of junior players. And while she hasn’t spent very much time with Sofia Mast, the very thought of Mast brings a smile to Larson’s face and a bit of a laugh.

“She is the sweetest thing,” she chuckles. “She’s just a little spark of energy.”

Larson is also cognizant that not only does the sheer fact of increased opportunities help players like Mast by providing them with more chances to compete, but it also pits them against the best that junior competition has to offer.

“A majority of these girls, like Sofia, are winning with their best against the best and that’s impressive,” said Larson.

A modest beginning, a nudge toward formal training and the chance to bring it all together

Sofia’s Dad, Jacob Mast was playing in the APA, and somewhere in the vicinity of 2017, Sofia began joining him when his team played out of a non-smoking bar. Sometime around 2018, when Sofia was 10, she started making use of the team’s practice tables on league nights.

“She started hitting balls and she was enjoying it,” Jacob recalled. “We met Jeanette Lee who had a kids’ league down here and she joined that.”

“You could just tell that she had the drive (to compete),” he added, “and in the junior league, she was progressing faster than other kids her age.”

Like many parents of junior players, Jacob recognized the limits of his own ability to keep Sofia moving in the direction of consistent improvement and as she moved into APA level 5 territory, he began actively seeking information about independent instruction.

“I’m more of a game manager (type of pool player) than a ball maker, so I help her with the mental side of it a lot,” said Jacob. “She’s more of a ball maker than I am.”

Sofia Mast

Corner Pocket (Largo, FL) room owner, Stephanie Mitchell, was an early supporter of Sofia and her Dad’s search for formal instructions for her. Father and daughter would visit Corner Pocket, where Mitchell had the chance to see the youngster play.

“She’s a very sweet girl, polite and very determined,” noted Mitchell. “She seems to be very consistent and I fully expect that in about five years, she’s going to be one of the top females in Florida, if not the country.”

“She has good form and has a strong pre-shot routine,” Mitchell added. “She’s very disciplined; she does the same thing every time, as opposed to just ‘flying’ into a shot. She seems to have the same level of focus every time; doesn’t have any ‘fly out of nowhere’ shots.”

“I wish I could say that myself, now,” Mitchell laughed, “let alone when I was 13.”

Jacob’s search led him eventually to Roy Pastor, recipient of the Professional Billiard Instructor Association’s (PBIA) 2020 Jerry Briesath Instructor of the Year Award. Pastor, who began instructing around the turn of the century by teaching an after-school high school program in his hometown of Harvard, MA (not associated with the University), would eventually expand the programs while continuing to offer free instruction to all junior players who walked through his doors, regardless of ability or skill level. His instructions branched out to embrace an ever-wider variety of services, to include league competition and supervised play, as well as a continually-growing body of students, which these days, stretches around the globe, through trained and accredited PBIA instructors. Three years ago, Pastor helped initiate the PBIA’s Break and Run Premier Junior Instructional School, and within the past year, launched the American Online Pool School, the first pool school offering an online PBIA accreditation course, as well as other online course formats and classes. Many of its instructors accredited through the school have volunteered their services through the Break and Run Premier Junior Instructional Program by providing free remote instruction to any junior player wanting to improve their game.

Enter Sofia Mast.

“Sofia’s doing great,” said Pastor, noting that she is one of a (growing) number of students, who, as part of the Break and Run program, over the past few years, have competed in the Junior National and Junior World Championships. Skylar Hess is another junior player who avails herself of Pastor’s program.

“She’s fearless,” he added of Sofia’s attributes as a player, “She’s got good mechanics and doesn’t rattle very easily.”

Through the on-line program, they work on (among other things) fundamentals, the 9-ball break, three-point break, and simple kicking systems, all of which exposes Pastor to not only Sofia’s basic skills, but her talent as a student of the game.

“She works really hard,” he said, “and she’s tenacious. She is a real force to be reckoned with on the table.”

Not content with having arguably one of the most dedicated junior instructors on the planet in his daughter’s corner, Jacob Mast was doing some “poking around” on the Internet, looking for the existence of junior tournaments. He happened to come across the Junior International Championships being organized around the country by Ra Hanna and his On the Wire Creative Media company.

“I was just trying to see what was out there,” Jacob explained, “and happened to run into that page.”

Enter Sofia Mast for Act II. Jacob, in the meantime, has been happy with the results.

“She is getting better,” he said, noting as well, that recent sponsorship by Predator, led to the acquisition of their “most powerful and best (line) of break cues,” called the BK Rush Cues, which, in turn, led to an improvement with that aspect of her game.

“It improved her break,” he said, definitively. “I mean, really, really improved it.”

According to Jacob, the only aspect of her game that appears to resist training has been her ability to rack balls.

“She ends up with a bad rack a lot when she has to rack her own,” Jacob said.

He and she were both pleased to learn that the Junior National Championships were going to employ what are known as “templar racks,” which, according to Jacob, would really help with that aspect of her game. Unfortunately, the shipment of them which were scheduled to be employed at the event did not arrive on time. When they did arrive, BEF representatives initiated a vote by the participants to determine whether all future matches would use them. The vote, according to Sofia, was “split, 50-50,” so they were not used as she and her Dad had originally hoped. By the same token, streaming video of many of the event’s matches demonstrated that among juniors, Sofia is not alone in her ‘wrestling match’ with balls that won’t stay still and touch each other uniformly.

And now, some words from Sofia . . .

Her Dad is not the only person pleased with Sofia’s progress. And it’s not just about her skill, desire and tenaciousness when she’s at the table. It’s about who she’s becoming as a young adult, able to witness her own improvement and in the face of defeat, like in the finals of this year’s Junior National Championships for the 18 & Under Girls, able to witness, as well, her own awareness of what was gained, not just what was lost.

“I think I did a really good job for my first time,” she said, back home in Tampa, without a trace of regret or disappointment.

She acknowledged that her work with the Junior International Championship series, which preceded the BEF Junior Nationals, was a contributing factor in how she performed in the latter; and that the ‘skipped year’ (when the pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 BEF Junior Nationals for which she had qualified) might have been a blessing in disguise.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I think having my confidence up (coming into the BEF Junior Nationals) was a good thing, because (in the beginning of the JIC series), I was a little scared at first.”

She learned, playing the Junior Nationals, about meeting and observing new players, and will bring that experience with her to the World competition in September. In the meantime, she’s going to practice, practice, practice, learn from her on-line pool program and watch the best of the best on YouTube.

“I like to watch Shane Van Boening,” she said. “I like how he takes his time and has a really good stroke.”

“I like Jeannette Lee, too,” she added. “I’ve seen her lots of times.”

She will also be navigating the ‘teenage’ waters she has just plunged into, with its own array of hopes, dreams, likes and dislikes.

“I like to cook,” she said, joy in her voice. “I like to bake cookies and cupcakes.”

She’ll be entering 8th grade when she returns to school, where her favorite subject is math. And yes, she sees the connection between math and the game she’s come to love. She also likes other types of games, like Monopoly, Yatzhee and gin, which she plays often, with family.

A serious note returned to her voice when she is asked about whether she has interest in playing other sports in available school programs.

“I want to be a professional,” she said, “and there’s a lot at stake.”

“I want to focus on pool more,” she said. “I don’t want to lose the ability that I have now.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of the Billiards Buzz Online Publication.