Local mibsters plan to practice more to achieve title dreams
They have thumb dexterity.
And that’s not a lame joke aimed at kids in the video-game era.
Sam Lee, Anna Lee, Katie Carozza and Jonathan Blair have thumb dexterity that comes from shooting marbles — shooting them often and shooting them well. So, they develop thumb dexterity. And blisters. And calluses.
And the payoff? None of them have reached the age of 14, but all four have competed for a national championship. None have won the crown, but they have time — the ages allowed to compete are 8 to 14 — and they have the ability, which they proved last month in Wildwood, N.J., during the National Marbles Tournament.
In the boys division, Sam Lee placed sixth and Blair finished eighth. In the girls division, Carozza finished sixth, and Anna Lee was 14th.
Their coach Leah Lee, mother of Sam and Anna, has coached five national champions in her 17 years of taking mibsters — that’s what they call marble shooters — to the national tournament.
She knows what it takes to be the national champ, and she sees championship potential in each of the four, even if they don’t see it themselves.
“These kids are all very good, and very much teenagers,” she said, realizing only one officially is a teen. “It was a very tough year to coach.”
Upon their return from the national tournament, they spent a recent afternoon at the marbles circles at Lincoln Park, located immediately west of the swimming pool. All of them said they would have fared better at the national meet if they had practiced more.
Ah, that’s what a coach likes to hear.
“Now that they realize that they need to work harder, they will,” she said.
Sam Lee increased his practice time during the past year from once every two weeks to once every week because he saw the fallout of not practicing enough. He’s been to nationals twice now, but he didn’t qualify in 2011 after making it in 2010, and he didn’t shy from saying why: “I was lazy.”
On the heels of his recent success, call him determined.
“This year, I’m going to win,” he said, adding, “This year, I’m going to practice every day.”
Whether that happens remains to be seen. After all, he is only 12, and Anna is the youngster in the quartet at 10.
Even with Sam’s extra practice, Blair shares the same title goal, and he’ll be hungry because next year he’ll be 14.
“It’s my last year,” he said, “so I really want to win.”
And this year, after dropping four spots from the fourth-place finish he achieved at nationals in 2010, he better understands the challenge in front of him.
“Last year,” he said, “I think there were only a few really good players. This year, there were a lot more.”
Leah Lee said Blair and Carozza, who was the national runner-up in the girls division in 2010, experienced the pressure that comes from being considered among the players to beat.
“Last year was Jon’s first year, and he was oblivious to what was going on,” she said. “This year, he expected (to do well) but didn’t practice as hard.”
Blair says he’ll practice harder this year.
What he experienced in terms of pressure probably went double for Carozza, who went from being an unknown to the girl other competitors’ were talking about. And the 12-year-old heard that talk.
“Last year, when I took second, I sort of came out of the blue,” she said. “This year, people thought I was the one to beat, and there was a lot of pressure.”
Being the runner-up made her the favorite this year because champions at the National Marbles Tournament don’t get to defend their titles. Their ultimate victory also marks their retirement from the tournament.
Carozza started the four-day national meet on fire. She sat in first place after the first day, winning 12 of her 14 matches. She slipped to fifth place on Day 2, not a catastrophe, given the top eight players after three days advance to the final day’s semifinals. But the third day nearly ended her tournament. She was frustrated and emotional after losing to some girls she felt she should beat. This was so not 2011, which she described as “a giant shock,” but the pleasant kind. 2012 was on the verge of becoming another giant shock, but the unpleasant kind.
But she learned something about herself that day: If you don’t quit, you still have a chance. After a walk on the nearby beach and a pep talk from her coach calmed her down, Carozza immediately reversed her fortune. She went on a winning streak that tied her for eighth place. Then, she won a playoff to make the semifinals.
She wanted better than the sixth-place finish, but she has the opportunity to improve upon it next year with a valuable lesson in tow.
“No matter what, practice is important,” she said. “Even if you’re favored, you still have to prepare to go. Practice, and get used to distractions, and don’t get overconfident.”
“I could’ve practiced more,” she added. “I improved (from the year before), but so did everyone else.”
If the practice point has been hammered home yet, listen this year’s boys champion, 13-year-old Caleb Isaccson of Gunnison. After placing third three years in a row, he said he practiced much more, especially as nationals approached, practicing about an hour every day for about four to six weeks, instead of the two to three times per week he otherwise would have practiced.
He has competed against Sam Lee and Jonathan Blair. Asked if they can succeed him as the national champion next year, he said, “Yeah.”
What will it take? Isaacson’s answer was short: “Work hard and practice hard.”