Junior International Championship Player Of The Month – Tatum Cutting

Tatum Cutting

She knew going in that she was only going to get one shot at it. 

Three months into her 18th year, Tatum Cutting of Diamond, OH, signed on to participate in the first-ever series of junior tournaments, collectively known as the Junior International Championships (JIC), held under the auspices of Ra Hanna and his On the Wire Creative Media, which commenced this past January. Her ‘one shot’ consisted of the year-long quest to win the 18 & Under Girls Division of the JIC, which she did, just a few weeks shy of turning 19.

Not, however, without encountering a few bumps along the road, which forced her to rethink certain aspects of her game. She, like many of her fellow competitors, were growing up in a lot of different ways in the year of JIC competition and the lessons learned, as they say, were like bridges burned. You only needed to cross them once.

There were also a few bumps along the road she traveled just to get to the Junior International Championships; things she couldn’t have foreseen or done much about, not to mention a ‘bump’ that was out of her control altogether.  It was an accident of birth that disqualified her for participation in this past year’s BEF Junior National Championships. BEF rules governing participation in its annual event dictate that if you age out of a division at any point during the year that the championships are held, you cannot compete in that division. Tatum turned 19 on Nov. 16, 2021, five months after the Junior Nationals were held at the South Point Hotel & Convention Center in Las Vegas, but was disqualified from entry due to the restriction. This also prevented her from getting an invitation to the World Junior Championships, which were originally scheduled for Las Vegas, but were relocated to Austria due to COVID restrictions. Predator Cues, though, invited her to attend the concurrently-run Predator Austria Women’s Open, where she went three-and-out.

She was the BEF’s Junior National Champion in the 16 & Under Girls division in 2019, but even that event had its ‘bump.’ She was unable to attend that year’s Junior World Championships because her school would not accept the trip to Cyprus to compete as a school-related activity and as a result, not an authorized absence. It was at that point that her parents began to home school her.

The clock has to be wound back a bit to see where this all began, around the time when Tatum was 8 or 9 years old. At the time, her father, Justin Cutting, was looking for a hobby. He settled on pool as that hobby, and as he began to participate, he brought Tatum along.

“She came out with me and started banging balls,” he said. “She just enjoyed it and was pretty natural at it from the start.”

She was at an age at which part of the attraction was just the time she was spending with her father – “I’d never really been out with him before,” she recalled. – but that was soon enhanced by her own reaction to playing pool.

“Everybody seemed interested in how old I was,” she recalled of her early years at the tables, “and pointed out that I had some talent. I always wanted to have something I was good at.” 

“I didn’t play a sport (at school), and with pool, you don’t have to have a lot of athleticism,” she added. “Anybody can do it, really. And with pool, everything is always different, every time you step to the table; a different mind-set, a different kind of pressure and different events.”

According to Tatum, her chosen sport wasn’t a part of the school’s extracurricular activities and as a result, it made her something of an outsider. By the time she reached middle school, she found herself getting bullied for playing pool, although by this time, she was actually making money at it. She joined junior leagues, only to discover that she was already further advanced than most of her peers. As a junior competitor with the APA, she was a ‘7’ within a year.

“All the other kids weren’t where I was,” she said, “so I started playing in adult leagues.”

“And it turned out,” she added, “that I was better than some of the people who’d been at it longer than I’d been alive.”

According to her Dad, it was another ‘check mark’ in a growing list of them that encouraged her to keep at it. She was not only playing well, she was winning fairly consistently.

“Winning at such a young age, that ‘winning factor,’ even when she got into the adult stuff propelled her along,” he said. 

At that point, as her teen years were intent on flying by, she hit another ‘bump’ over which she had little or no control. It was a combination of a lack of places, leagues and/or regional tours in her immediate area that would allow someone her age to participate. She was eventually asked to join the WPBA, but by then, she was getting more and more engaged with school and most of the eligible events proved to be too far away to attend with any regularity.

She did manage to qualify and participate in the 2015 BEF Junior Nationals, finishing as the event’s runner-up. It’s an event that she looks back on as her first ‘major tournament’ experience. A year later, she surprised even herself, when she was able to finish in the money at the Super Billiard Expo’s Amateur Women’s Open.

“There were a lot of women in that event,” she recalled. “I was so young (14) and there was nobody at that tournament that was my age.”

Tatum Cutting

As practice, leagues and the occasional local tournament kept her hand on a pool cue, she discovered a career path, one with a few less ‘bumps’ than pool. Just as her desire to be “really good at something” had sparked her strong, and as it turned out, lasting interest in pool, so, too, did her love of math (her favorite subject in school) and an interest in the world of computers, lead her to pursue a career in cyber security engineering. She’d also gotten to know a woman with whom she played pool on a regular basis who’d attained a degree in the subject. It was a new major at Kent State where she enrolled this past year to pursue it. She’ll be eligible for a work-study program in her second year and is hoping that if she becomes associated with a good company that she’ll be able to continue along that career path through that company. She’ll graduate from Kent State in 2024.

In her final year as a junior competitor, Cutting enters the JIC series of tournaments

And then . . . along came Ra Hanna and his On the Wire Creative Media company, which launched this idea; a series of junior tournaments, set at pool rooms all across the country, leading to developing rank in any of five different divisions, culminating in a championship event that would coincide, temporally and geographically, with Pat Fleming’s US International Open in late October of 2021.

“Considering that (he organized approximately) one a month for a whole year for juniors,” she said, the sheer wonder of it animating her voice into excitement, “that was really good for pool. Not just for juniors, but for pool, in general.”

“Crazy good,” she added. “It even caught the attention of some of the pros.”

It was more, she went on to say, than just the sheer fact that Hanna was running it with ‘a little help from friends,’ including many competitors’ parents. Sure, he was the driving force behind all of the organization; arrangements for the venues and all of the nitty, gritty details of any kind of tour (again, with those ‘friends’), but it went beyond that. He became something of a parent figure, which helped all of the junior competitors bond in a way that might not have happened without him.

“We all became super close because of him,” said Tatum. “We became close because we wanted to hang out with Ra.”

And then, for Tatum, came another ‘bump in the road.’ This one, she put there herself.

“I really wanted to win (what was going to be) my last juniors tournament,” she said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

Unable to attend the first JIC event in January, won by Sofia Mast (a name and person she’d come to know quite well in the year ahead), Tatum was elated and encouraged when she won the second one in March. She’d defeated Mast to claim the hot seat, and downed Bethany Tate in the finals to claim the title. She wouldn’t win again until August.

In the third event of the season, she finished as runner-up to Aryana Lynch, like Cutting, a former BEF Junior National Champion (2018). At the fourth event in May, the pressure she’d put on herself intruded and the ‘wheels’ came off a bit. Mast won her second, ahead of Skylar Hess and Bethany Tate, while Tatum finished in 9th place. She rallied in June, although Mast defeated her in a winners’ side quarterfinal. Tatum won four on the loss side to earn a rematch in the finals, but the 13-year-old Mast defeated her a second time in the finals to claim her second 18 & Under Girls title. At that point, midway through the JIC season, she was in third place in the 18 & Under Girls rankings; close enough to have earned her a spot in the October championships were the season to come to an end right then. But of course, it didn’t. And Sofia Mast was at the top of both the 18 & Under and 13 & Under divisions.

Prior to the seventh stop on the JIC tour, Tatum traveled to Sacramento, CA to compete in a juniors event organized by Oscar Dominguez. She and Landon Hollingsworth won their respective Girls and Boys 19 and Under division. Cutting, significantly, had defeated Mast in the opening round and in the finals. She, Kennedy Meyman and Mast finished as the event’s top three. But upon her return to the JIC schedule, at an August event in her own backyard (Fairfield, OH), Tatum found herself out of the running early, as Mast advanced to win her third 18 & Under Girls JIC title.

“It was very weird, but I just couldn’t seem to win two (events) in a row,” she said, adding that she had no idea what was going wrong. “I was still hitting the balls all right, I just didn’t do well.”

Some parental advice helped, as her father stepped in to right the apparently foundering ship. It didn’t change the loss in Fairfield, but it had a decided and ultimately, significant effect on what happened over the next two and final events.

“It was the pressure of increased expectations,” her father said. “Word had gotten out about her and people were paying attention; fans and people watching. I told her that their expectations didn’t mean a thing, that the only expectations she had to meet were in her head.”

“That,” he told her, “is on you.”

She also listened to another parental figure, Ra Hanna of On the Wire Creative Media, who reminded her that “if she ever found her old form and time to practice, that she’d be unstoppable.”   

She took the messages to heart, telling herself that all she had to do was “just go out and play pool. Just play the game and whatever happens, happens.” Her father watched as the message settled into his daughter’s head and led to a discernible sign of relief as Tatum turned to what lay ahead.

Tatum Cutting

The last stop before the JIC Championships for the 18 & Under Girls took place in Roanoke, VA on the weekend of Sept. 17-19 at the Wolf’s Den, owned and operated by Kory and Trena Wolford, two of the many ‘friends,’ who’d supported and offered substantial hands-on assistance to Ra Hanna throughout the JIC season (their daughter, Savanna, competed in the JIC series). Tatum came into the event one win behind Mast in the tour rankings (3-2), though unless Mast failed to show up altogether, she would finish the season (regardless of Tatum’s finish) at the top of the 18 & Under Girls division.

Both of them ended up on the loss side of the bracket; Mast, earlier (opening round) than Cutting, who’d lost a winners’ side semifinal match. They met in one of the two 5th/6th matches and any concerns about how Cutting was handling the continuing increased pressure that had dogged her efforts since spring disappeared when she shut Mast out, advancing to the quarterfinals, semifinals and finally, defeating Casey Cork, who’d sent her to the loss side in the winners’ side semifinal; not, however, before Cork, who was far below the 8-player threshold for advancement to the JIC Finals in Norfolk in a month, put up a double hill fight that nearly derailed Cutting’s efforts. Cutting prevailed to tie her with Mast in total victories on the JIC season.

On to Norfolk and the weekend of Oct. 28-30. The JIC 18 & Under Girls Championship, the top prize for which Tatum had been battling, not to mention occasionally struggling, for 10 months, loomed in the short-distance. Mast and Cutting almost met in the hot seat match, but Cutting had drawn Skylar Hess in one winners’ side semifinal, while Mast faced Kennedy Meyman in the other one. Cutting and Meyman ended up squaring off in the hot seat match and much to the chagrin, and likely, swirling concerns of Cutting, Meyman won it 8-5 and claimed the hot seat.

On the loss side, in the quarterfinals, Mast met up with Skylar Hess in one of the series’ other major rivalries. They fought to double hill before Mast advanced to face Cutting in the semifinals; essentially the match that the two of them had been preparing for all year long. Arguably as significant for Cutting as the finals that would follow, it was the second straight double hill match for Mast. Cutting defeated her, which certainly provided a shot of confidence-adrenaline as Cutting advanced to the finals. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place with a bit of a bang. Cutting accomplished the goal of winning her last major event as a junior competitor by shutting Meyman out in the finals.

Immediately after the match, Cutting couldn’t remember what she thought when she saw that final 9-ball drop into its hole.

“Well, before I even shot the 9-ball, my heart was racing,” she said. “After I shot it, I . . . didn’t think of anything. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’d never been in that kind of a situation before, so. . . maybe tomorrow, I’ll remember.”

Weeks later, she did. And the thoughts that emerged as her heart rate returned to semi-normal, as she returned to her ongoing hectic schedule of pursuing a career and a full-time job, were less about the Championship title itself and more of about its long-term significance.

“I’d made history,” she’d thought to herself in a quiet moment of reflection, away from the lights of the Accu-Stat Arena and the year-long pursuit of a goal, doing something she was good at. “I’d won the very first Junior International Championship. Nobody was ever going to beat that, only tie it.”

Lost somewhat in this profile of her as a player and competitor is the tale of perfectly normal, steadily maturing young woman. A fact upon which her fellow first-time JIC 18 & Under Boys Champion, Landon Hollingsworth noted in the wake of his own victory.

“Tatum was the one of the strongest players I ever played around,” he remarked. “She had a lot more experience than many of the other players, and she was not scared to shoot at anything. A lot of the other girls were somewhat intimidated by her, like ‘Oh, my God, it’s Tatum.’ Except for Sofia (Mast). She didn’t care.”

“Tatum was very outgoing and fun to be around,” he added. “She was very steady, always there, placing well, and she’s a good person to have by your side, cheering you on.”

She wants to a professional pool player – “more than anything,” she said – but at 19 now, this hasn’t stopped her from getting her priorities in order. She is deeply appreciative of the efforts her parents have put into her love of pool and is trying her hardest at this point to move forward on her own.

“School first and job for consistent income,” she said of those priorities. “It’s the adult side of me stepping out, trying my hardest to make it work.”