Kelsey Baran, 14, is determined to end her career on a high note.
After winning the girls division of the Allegheny County Marbles Tournament on May 31, Kelsey will represent the region Monday through Thursday at the 91st Annual National Marbles Championships in Wildwood, N.J. Since 14 is the maximum qualifying age, this will be the McCandless teen’s last time in competition.
“I hope that I win,” Kelsey said. “But if not, at least second or third place.”
Shooters from Allegheny County historically have dominated the national competition. Since 2004, 10 of the winners have hailed from the region.
Kelsey ranked among the top eight players at last year’s national tournament. Since winning the county competition, she has been practicing nearly every day, with each session lasting a couple of hours.
The eighth-grader at Carson Middle School in the North Allegheny School District began shooting marbles three years ago when one of her mom’s friends invited her to give the Allegheny County Marbles Program a try.
It was there that she met a community of mibsters — as they’re known in the sport — many of whom were coached by longtime player Dan LaGamba.
Mr. LaGamba knew right away that Kelsey would succeed.
“As soon as she picked up a marble, she had the kind of form that would take someone else a year or so to perfect,” he said. “She was a natural.”
Kelsey remembers it a little differently, recalling that she initially had trouble holding and shooting the marbles. But after some practice, she began entering tournaments and growing more confident.
A quiet child, Kelsey found her voice on the marbles court.
“If you ask anyone, they will say there’s a huge difference between who she was when she started and now,” said her mother, Jill Baran. “The confidence that Kelsey has gained over the years is priceless.”
Kelsey wasn’t enthusiastic about other sports, particularly those that involve large groups such as lacrosse. Since she started playing marbles, the small and close-knit community at the Allegheny County Marbles Program has helped her come out of her shell.
The other players, who are largely from Lawrenceville, were strangers to her when she started the program. Now, they are some of Kelsey’s closest friends.
While Kelsey admits that she and her fellow mibsters sometimes “goof around” during practice, Mr. LaGamba has been impressed by her discipline.
“Her dedication and hard work have made her a wonder to coach these couple of years,” he said. “If you tell her to go home and shoot 100 eight-inch half shots, she’ll come back next practice having done it.”
Mr. LaGamba is confident that Kelsey will perform well at the nationals, noting that her top eight finish last year positions her among the best players in the country.
These expectations have not been lost on Kelsey.
While she is excited about the Wildwood tournament, she admitted to feeling the pressure.
“My family and my friends all want me to win, because it’s my last year,” she said.
She looks forward to what will take place after all of the scores are tallied and the winners crowned. At the end of the tournament, Kelsey said, the competitors will take to the beach. That — spending time with the friends she has made over the past few years — will be its own form of reward, she said.
And as for her chances? Mr. LaGamba said who will take home first prize is anyone’s guess.
“When you hit the top of the country, anything can happen,” he said.
Yanan Wang: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1949.