Abongile Yalo was 19 years old when he found his calling at the University of Fort Hare – and it had very little to do with his chosen career path.
It was there, three years ago, that he was introduced to the unlikely sport of pool. It drew him in like a moth to a candle and it wasn’t long before he set the scene alight.
Former Fort Hare coach Sixolile Nkonyeni, one of the province’s best players, knows a thing or two about pocketing balls at will and immediately recognised that the young deadeye had a future with the cue if he wanted it.
Taking Yalo under his wing was a decision that would lay the groundwork for his protégé’s astonishing rise to prominence on the felt.
At the Pool South Africa U23 Singles Championships in Cape Town earlier this month the 21-year-old shot his way to the round of 16 from a starting field of 384 players.
He was selected to represent the Eastern Cape Pool Association at the event on the back of an excellent year.
The third-year bachelor of commerce student was also a key member of the Fort Hare team that won the provincial universities league in 2022 and starred at the University Sports South Africa pool championships, where he placed in the top 10 in the singles.
Yalo’s showing on his national champs debut is even more remarkable if one considers that pool was practically non-existent as a sport while growing up in Bizana.
While he may have expected to make the provincial team, sharing the stage with national champions was a big step up and he admitted to feeling shaky during his first few frames in Bellville.
“I was nervous at first because I knew I was playing against the best. Remember it was my first time there. But I know I tried my best.”
Yalo may have charged up the ranks quickly, but there has been a lot of cueing behind the scenes. Fort Hare’s pool players practically practise non-stop.
UFH pool manager Tolakele Mbusi had been very supportive, Yalo said, so much so that he joined him in Cape Town to be a calming influence when he needed it most.
“He also had some practice sessions with me before the nationals,” he said.
The top five players were selected to represent South Africa in Australia next year, as good a reason as any for Yalo to come back stronger.
After his stunning performance in the Mother City, getting his national colours in 2024 is firmly on his radar – and everyone knows how accurate that is.
He is convinced he can do it. All it takes is “a lot of hard work”.