- Associated Press - Sunday, September 20, 2015

WORMS, Neb. (AP) - In his yard in Worms, Paul Mommens focused.

He felt the weight of the 2.5-pound cast-iron horseshoe in his hand, part of the set he’s had for more than 30 years. He’s thrown them so many times that the place where his thumb rests has been worn shiny.

Mommens knew just how his hand should feel on the release so that the shoe would flip one-and-a-half times in the air, landing right around the stake that was 40 feet away. A ringer.

He stood back, zeroed in, stepped, released.

“Nope,” he whispered to himself as the shoe landed just off target.

“I can usually tell when I release it whether it’s going around the stake or not,” he told The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1UYopje).

It’s a skill Mommens has developed over many years playing horseshoes. In July, his feel for the sport paid off when he won his class at the World Horseshoe Tournament in Kansas.

This is the second time he has won in the tournament, and while he enjoys winning, he said his love of it comes from his connection to other people.

That’s how it started out, too.

Mommens said before he ever played in a tournament, he grew up playing horseshoes with his dad at family gatherings.

“They always had to break out the horseshoes,” he said.

Mommens took that competitive spirit one step further in about 1982, when he joined a league in Seward. Since then, Mommens has moved to Worms, competed in countless tournaments around the state and has gone to the World Tournament eight times.

Pitching, Mommens said, takes a lot of practice and a little luck.

“You do the same thing every time, and if you can control it and do it the same every time, you can get pretty good,” he said.

To play, pitchers stand on opposite sides, and each throws two shoes.

According to the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association, men pitch from 40 feet away, while younger players, women and men older than 70 pitch from 30 feet away. Players can not cross a foul line located three feet in front of the stake.

There are two methods of scoring, but at the World Tournament, only one player can score at a time. If both players get a ringer, they cancel each other out, but otherwise, they are worth three points. Contestants can also score if they are within six inches of the stake. Whoever is closest receives one point.

The game goes until either a shoe limit or a point limit is reached. At the World Tournament, Mommens said they threw 40 shoes per game.

To qualify, he had to compete in four NHPA tournaments throughout the year.

Players were sorted in classes based on their ringer percentages, and those in Mommens’ class had about 22 percent accuracy. To win, he had to compete against about 15 others, playing 15 games in three days. He won 11.

“It’s pretty hard,” Mommens said. “Not too many guys win all 15 games.”

The other tournament winners from Nebraska were Mike Campbell in the I-2 class and Tim Shaske in the M-1 class.

Marsha Welke, a friend of Mommens’ who went to the tournament with him, said though not a lot of people know about horseshoes competitively, it was a big accomplishment.

“If you try it, you’ll see it is not easy,” she said. “It is skill.”

It takes endurance, she said, as the players often have to stand and stay focused for four or five hours at a time.

It’s also very competitive.

Rex Robinson Jr., who is the communications and publicity director for the Nebraska Horseshoe Pitchers Association, said that’s true.

“If you know horseshoe people, we all want to beat each other’s socks off,” he said.

Robinson, of Columbus, has known Mommens for years, and he said he definitely fits that bill.

John Seevers, of Seward, agreed. He was Mommens’ teacher in college and has played horseshoes with him for years.

Mommens is a quiet competitor, Seevers said, and he doesn’t often let on how he’s doing.

Still, “if he’s feeling good and he gets hot, he’s very, very good,” Seevers said.

But though those who play horseshoes can be fierce, they’re also very respectful.

Mommens himself says he has learned to lose gracefully on days when he’s off. He said he has played against some of the guys for nearly 30 years, and he enjoys seeing them at tournaments.

Welke said it’s a strong bond.

“It was nice to see how they stay connected like a family,” she said.

She said Mommens’ qualities in horseshoes also extend to his life outside the sport.

The focus and dedication he has while playing are reflected in his dedication to his family and ability to follow through, she said.

Along with his wife, Madonna, who died about a year ago, Mommens raised five children, including two grandchildren they adopted. His family would often travel with him to tournaments, and several of them, including a granddaughter, have been involved in the sport.

Mommens said those connections are part of why he enjoys being involved, and he plans to continue. He said he plans to play until he can’t anymore, and he’s looking forward to turning 70 to move up to the 30-foot line and “get a lot better.”

Horseshoes, he said, is a chance to have fun and meet nice people, and he hopes more people will get involved.

“It’s just fun when we get together,” he said.

___

Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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