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Howie Hanson: Competitive bocce looks like a blast

My bocce experience has been limited to playing in the front yard with our children, Ben and Emily, and the neighborhood kids. We make up our own rules. We simply throw the little white ball to one end of the yard and take turns throwing the larg...

My bocce experience has been limited to playing in the front yard with our children, Ben and Emily, and the neighborhood kids. We make up our own rules. We simply throw the little white ball to one end of the yard and take turns throwing the larger balls at it. The ball that finishes closest to the white ball gets a point. We rarely keep score, and even when we do we almost always lose count.

Bocce is sort of like curling, we've concluded. It helps if the grass is cut short, because the balls seem to roll smoother. However, no two shots seem to roll the same, so luck usually wins over skill.

I learned something new about bocce on Tuesday while watching the women compete at Art Anselmo Courts at Wheeler Field: bocce is also fun when you play by the rules and play on professional courts, when it's easier to control the path of the ball and skill is rewarded.

The Web provided me with more information on bocce:

According to the United States Bocce Federation, "Bocce is a competitive game of skill. It sharpens the reflexes and judgment -- and stimulates good fellowship among players. It is played by young and old alike. It is very popular throughout the United States among Italian Americans who compose its greatest advocates and best players.

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"The purpose of the game is to roll the bocce, a 4-inch ball weighing about three pounds, as close as possible to the pallino, a 1-inch ball which is rolled down the alley first. The bocce coming closest to the pallino scores. Twelve points constitute a game.

"The game requires: good judgment of distance, the ability to size up a situation immediately, a good eye to spot contours and rough spots in the alley, and the proper psychological frame of mind.

"Bocce fans claim the game helps improve their bowling, golf and shuffleboard because it has many features of these games in it. There is no age limit for the bocce players. Many elderly citizens play the game for relaxation and exercise.

"For many Italian Americans, bocce is a nostalgic glimpse of the 'old Country.' It brings to their minds a reminder of the proud Italian heritage of which they are a part. It's a brief glance at 'The Glory that was Rome.'"

Fourteen women's teams compete at six courts at Wheeler, and two teams compete in a second shift. The men, I was told, compete on Monday and Wednesday. Seniors play recreationally on Thursday.

Leone's is the defending women's champion, the team everyone wants to beat. To a novice like me, the champs -- Denice Campanario (who runs the women's league), Theresa Olson, Barbara Currier and Diane Cochran -- seemed almost unbeatable.

Karen Sunderman, of WDSE fame, is a talented player on another team, and certainly one of the best local ambassadors for the sport. She pointed me to one of bocce's best Web sites: joyofbocce.com.

Bocce is easy, fun and it's a sport that breeds long-term, positive friendships, said Campanario.

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"The rules are simple: you throw the little ball, get the bigger balls close to it, and whoever gets closest get the points," she said. "Games are played to 11 points. In leagues, we play three games up to 11."

The courts at Wheeler, nicely manicured, are some of the best in the world, some of the league's most experienced players said.

"We can thank Art and Joe Maio, and others, who worked with former mayor John Fedo to get the courts built in 1985," said Campanario. "Until then, the city operated courts under the freeway in the West End."

The Duluth Bocce Club hosts an annual mixed recreational tournament, on a Saturday in September.

"The tournament is open to everyone, and the first 12 teams who sign up get in," said Campanario. "We play all day, and one of the best parts is the sausages we cook up and serve throughout the day."

Teams competing in the women's league this summer are Al & Pals, D.J.'s, Deluxe Coney Island, High Balls, Higher Grounds Coffee House, Hit or Misses, Italian Village, JNJ, JE Associates, Leone's, Lukovsky Chiropractic, Original Coors, Sassy Sisters and Team Grappa.

Between the Lines

Duluth Mayor Herb Bergson will throw out the ceremonial first pitch at 5 p.m. Monday to officially open the West Duluth Little League season.

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Bergson coaches the West Duluth Minor League A's, along with six assistants including his two sons, David and Jesse.

"Minor Little League ball is so fun for the kids, it defies description," said Bergson. "I remember one year I coached a little boy who hadn't even hit a fair ball yet. He was up with two outs in the 6th inning and a boy on second and one on third. We were one run down. I think he expected to either strike out or walk, just as he had done every time so far that year. With two strikes on him, he just swung down the middle of the plate as the pitcher released the ball. He hit a blooper over the first baseman and both runners scored to win the game.

"I remember the other kids carrying him off the field on their shoulders. I remember what it meant to that little 8 year-old. I also remember that his parents were not there to see him win the game. Kids grow up way to fast for us to miss those great moments."

Also on Bergson's coaching staff are Jeff Braack, Wes Ridgewell and parents Jim and Jeff.

"Jeff has been with me for all seven years," said Bergson. "Wes is a former catcher for Denfeld who decided to coach instead of play. He would be contending to be the Hunters starting catcher, but he chose the kids instead."

West Duluth has nine minor, six major, three 13-year-old and two 15-year-old teams. Minor and major games are played at two fields behind Wade Stadium, and the 13- and 15-year-olds use Stowe as home field. Minor games are played on Tuesday and Thursday, and major games are Monday and Wednesday.

Minor teams will hit off Jugs pitching machines for the first two weeks of the season, before hitting off live pitching. The season will run through July 29.

West Duluth has also added two introductory teams for 7 and 8-year-olds.

"The intro minor teams will mostly practice, to learn the game, and they'll start to play games about halfway through the year," said Tracy Engebretsten, West Duluth Little League's co-president with Dan Buetow.

  • Second-round draft choice Rick Rickert, back from playing this season in Slovenia, had an individual workout with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday. The former Duluth East and Gophers star is working out daily at the 'Wolves training facility at Target Center.

Howie Hanson, the dean of area sportswriters, writes a weekly sports column for Duluth Budgeteer News. He can be reached by e-mail at Duluth@aol.com

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