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Wednesday, July 30, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 58.0° F  Fair
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Bocce for all! Italian lawn bowling comes to McFarland

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A bunch of Madison Curling Club members were talking about summer activities they might pursue as a complement to their ice time on the rink in McFarland. Curling veteran Bill Swanson remembers someone saying he had been so impressed by the bocce tournaments he saw during his travels that he hired a contractor to build a regulation bocce court in his backyard. Someone else thought bocce was a fine idea.

Next thing you know, a handful of folks are establishing the nonprofit Four Lakes Bocce Association, rallying volunteers and gathering materials to build four bocce courts adjacent to the Madison Curling Club, McFarland Community Ice Arena and the soccer and baseball fields of William McFarland Park. The city of McFarland kicked in several thousand dollars, notes Swanson, the association's president. City crews dug out the courts so volunteers could lay down drainage tile, then gravel and a crushed-seashell surface.

Bocce, anyone?

The answer has been a resounding yes. This spring's adult leagues saw a 20% jump in participation over last fall. Its current youth league continues through Aug. 11. This year's adult summer league runs July 11-Sept. 2, with play for ages 18 and up on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. The Four Lakes Bocce Association has also welcomed school and senior programs, Special Olympics athletes and a UW Mini Course to its courts, which are available for rent by businesses, families and groups seeking camaraderie-building alternatives to activities like bowling and softball. Two of the complex's courts are wheelchair-accessible.

"Bocce, basically anybody can play it," Swanson says. It's very much like curling, he adds, in that "it's a very social sport." Matches do turn competitive, he allows, noting the occasional bocce enthusiast who admonishes onlookers to shush themselves during play, à la golf.

The game, however, is rooted in fun. "It gets you outside, and it's a great family sport too," Swanson says.

Bocce may date to five millennia B.C., when Egyptians are believed to have played a precursor that involved lobbing stones toward a target. As the game evolved through Greek, Roman, Renaissance, Elizabethan and 20th-century Italian iterations, the underhand tossing of balls toward a target remained at bocce's center - though modern standards specify the dimensions and surface composition of the court, proprieties of conducting a game, and so on.

Under rules observed by FLBA leagues, two players from each team of four stand at each end of the court, with alternates standing by. A coin flip determines which team tosses the pallino (target ball) and first bocce ball.

Many of bocce's more detailed rules - governing the manner in which balls may be tossed, what constitutes an infraction, and penalties - are easier to comprehend by watching and doing than by reading about them, though they appear in full on the association's website at

Scoring is easier: After all eight balls have been played in a given frame, one point is awarded to a team for each ball it has placed closer to the pallino than the opposing team's closest ball. Frames continue until one team reaches 11 points to win.

Registration for this summer's league remained open as of last week, though Swanson notes that one of the three nights was approaching its limit. The cost is $40 per person with a minimum of four players per team, but five or six are preferred (to cover for absences). All equipment is provided.

At present, leagues are coed. This may evolve with demand, Swanson says, noting that some other bocce facilities host separate leagues for college students, women and other groups.

Teams are already straying from bocce stereotypes. "On Wednesday night, we have two or three teams of people in their 20s and 30s," Swanson reports, noting that one team of computer enthusiasts have claimed "The Geeks" as their team name.

"Our plan eventually is for eight courts," Swanson notes, "and to light them," so the complex could host charity tournaments and more leagues that can play deeper into the night.

"We've had people down from the Italian Workmen's Club," Swanson adds. "I think there's a possibility next year that they'll take a night."

Bocce newcomers are welcomed during open bocce sessions hosted by the association at 2 p.m. Sundays. "Give yourself about a half-hour," Swanson says, to traverse the learning curve. "It's easy to learn."

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