JESSUP–Kristin Grogan can’t hold back her frustration.
Despite playing a far inferior team, she and her partner are struggling to find their groove on the foosball table. Grogan, normally exceptional on defense, has already let in a couple of goals.
With the ball in their offensive zone, her partner turns it over. Their opponent, half shooting and half attempting to clear the ball, fires a rocket across the table that somehow weaves through the plastic players and bounces past Grogan for a goal.
Grogan peers into the goal with wonder, as if asking “How did that go in?”
Her team has fallen behind. A small crowd gathers around their table at the Maryland State Foosball Championships. For Grogan, the pressure to mount a comeback slowly increases.
‘She can stuff anybody’
In the highly competitive, male-dominated world of snake shots, 5-bars and brush passes, Kristin Grogan is something of an anomaly.
The 42-year-old Jessup resident is not the biggest of foosball players, nor is she the strongest. Her unassuming nature doesn’t exactly scream dominance on the table.
But despite her small stature, Grogan is one of the best female foosball players—or “foosers”— in the world.
“I always tell people ‘don’t be deceived by her size and her really nice attitude,’” said Tony Spredeman, currently the highest ranked player in the United States. “When she gets on the foosball table she’s really tough.”
Professional foosball players need to be tough. There’s a big difference between the brand of foosball being played at pro tournaments and what you might see at a local bar or college campus.
To professionals, foosball isn’t so much a matter of getting the ball into the goal as it is about strategically advancing the ball from one bar to the next. They employ fakes to get their opponents’ bar in the air, use the wall to corral the ball and shoot it so fast you’d miss it if you blinked.
Spinning the bars? Illegal. So too is taking your hands off the rods while the ball is in play to do anything but change positions. Players must ask permission to reset in the case of a dead ball, and teams are allowed two timeouts per game.
Grogan grew up in Littleton, Colo., a hotbed for foosball. She began playing 27 years ago when she walked into a pool hall and saw the game for the first time.
From there, Grogan said, she kept on playing, drawn by the fact that “there were no limits on age, gender, height or any kind of disabilities. It was like an equal ground.”
In a game reliant on quick reflexes and strong wrists, Grogan’s got both.
“She has very very quick reflexes,” said Kitty Shadman, a fellow fooser who’s known Grogan for six years and now plays as her women’s doubles partner. “And most women don’t have a really strong pull shot because of the wrists. She just cranks it. She can stuff anybody.”
That combination of speed and strength has made Grogan so successful. In the traditional foosball rankings, Grogan is ranked as expert, the third highest rank a player can achieve. Among women, she’s a pro, a step higher and one short of master, the rank only bestowed upon the top dozen or so players in the world.
As Grogan and her partner Todd Loffredo slowly make a comeback in their opening round match, Grogan’s demeanor begins to subtly change. With each goal, she gets more animated, whispering encouragement to her partner when he gets on a scoring roll.
They pat the back of each other’s legs after goals, and talk strategy during brief timeouts.
“When he goes long, he’s gotta do it early for it to be good,” Loffredo said of the opponent’s shot during a timeout. “He got me on one that he was sitting on for awhile,” she responded.
“Yea,” Loffredo said. “But it wasn’t very good.”
The pair clearly have chemistry on the table. Their bars move in sync, and most of their communication is done without words.
Grogan and Loffredo have known each other since Grogan started playing. By then, Loffredo was already a world champion singles player, on his way to achieving the master rank he holds today.
Grogan lost touch with foosball after moving to California in her early 20’s. But she moved to Virginia eight years ago and started playing tournaments to get back in the game. Though she wasn’t a full time player, Grogan still found herself travelling across the country and the world to play in major tournaments.
It was at one of those tournaments in New York four years ago where she ran into her old friend and competitor Loffredo. They formed a mixed doubles team, and have been playing, and winning, together ever since.
The pair practice together regularly, using technology to overcome the distance.
Grogan practices for five to 10 hours per week. Loffredo lives in Ohio and he and Grogan Skype at least once a week to work on their games. They set up cameras above their tables, watch each other play and talk strategy.
“I’ll sit back and I’ll watch to see moves before she shoots, just the little things,” said Loffredo, 52. “It’s much easier to practice when you have somebody there. It can make a difference [in games].”
‘The possibilities of the next action’
Like most players at the Maryland State Championships in February, Grogan is affable and easy-going away from the table. Though incredibly modest, and somewhat unwilling to talk about her game, she carries herself with a sense of belonging.
One of the event’s organizers, she meanders around the back room of the Holiday Inn Columbia making sure everything is running smoothly and mingling with other players.
But on the table, a different, intimidating Kristin comes out.
“She has that aggressiveness, and you look at her and you wouldn’t think that,” Loffredo said. “Her 5-bar, it’s great. It’s intimidating to have a girl up there who starts outpassing you. These guys, they don’t like it.”
During her opening match with Loffredo, Grogan’s laser-like focus is on display. She rarely, if ever, takes her eyes off the table–even during some timeouts.
And just as in other sports, where the best players often play ahead of the game, Grogan plays with what she calls “the possibilities of the next action.”
“Some people play a speed game,” Loffredo said. “Kristin’s more of a thinker.”
But afterwards, the aggressiveness evaporates, replaced by the friendly attitude that makes her well-liked and respected in the foosball community.
When asked to describe her style of play Grogan struggled for a few moments before settling on “old school.”
A changing game
Though foosball remains largely an underground sport, the game has undergone serious changes in recent years–most notably the aging of players.
The rise in video and computer games has lessened the need for arcades and game rooms, where people used to congregate to play foosball during the sports’ heyday several decades ago.
“I think we’ve lost a lot of players because we don’t have the venues that we used to in the 80’s and 90’s where younger people can come out and learn to play the game,” she said. “We’ve missed a lot of underage kids.”
That’s why tournaments like the one in Jessup are as much about growing the game as they are for competition, Grogan said.
“We want to get the game exposed on a national level, to draw new players,” she said. “And also to promote the sport on our local level where we can make just enough money to buy tables for our players.”
The lack of new players doesn’t mean there hasn’t been innovation in foosball. One of the most important changes the game has seen is the advent of the controversial snake shot.
Gone are the days when banking the ball off the wall was a primary scoring technique. Today it’s all about the snake or “rollover” shot. By resting the bar on the wrist and positioning their player on top of the ball, foosers can spin the bar by pulling their arm upward, spinning their man backwards and shooting the ball forward in towards the goal.
The shot was initially banned — since players were technically taking their hand off the bar — but has since been deemed legal. The ball is nearly impossible to track when done correctly, and the shot is now the bread and butter of most high level foosers’ games.
Grogan and Loffredo eventually completed the comeback in that first match, preventing what would have been a major upset. They went on to finish third in the Pro mixed doubles event for the tournament.
“Not often does an expert level team place that high in a pro event,” Grogan said. “Not to mention with a woman.”
But eventually the games end. The beginner players slowly trickle out in the afternoon as their matches end, while the veteran players continue on into the early evening.
Any tension lingering over the tables is replaced by a feeling of camaraderie, an understanding that there aren’t many foosers left, and that some won’t see a tournament for several weeks or months while they return to their regular jobs.
Grogan isn’t a full-time player–she works as a technical writer for a phone company. But she continually scratches the foosball itch, playing in at least two local competitions per week and travelling the tour when she can on weekends.
The travel is worth it, she said, because the foosball community is her family. Most of her friends have been made playing foosball. And for the majority of players at the Maryland State Foosball Championship who have other jobs, the tournament presents a great opportunity for foosers to gather around the game they love.
“The main purpose is for all of us to get together,” Grogan said. “We enjoy playing and we enjoy being around each other.”
She said she knows foosball is a strange hobby to have. But it’s tournaments like the one in Jessup, where the games come second to the company, that keeps the small group of dedicated players connected.
“The people are definitely more important than the games,” she said. “We consider ourselves family.”