Quite possibly the largest and longest running bocce ball tournament in the United States took place last weekend in the tiny Central Illinois town of Toluca—and it had a new twist.
For the first time in the nonprofit event’s 69 years, individuals attending the Chuck Rolinski Memorial Bocce Ball Tournament had the opportunity to help those affected by Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area.
“For the poor people in Texas, especially in the Houston area, I reached out to the Midwest Food Bank and asked them if I put one of their official collection boxes up if we could collect funds or canned goods for them,” said tournament supervisor ToniMarie Wudtke.
“They were very receptive to the funds because that way they could direct towards what they most need. They were very excited about it. I have no idea how many people will be able to donate, but we thought it would align very well with an unfortunate situation.”
The four-day event, which began Friday, has been a Labor Day weekend staple since World War II when it began as the Clitch Capponi Memorial Tournament. It was renamed a few years ago in honor of longtime Toluca High School basketball coach Chuck Rolinski, who took over running the event in the 1960s.
What is bocce ball, you ask?
“Bocce ball is sometimes fondly called Italian golf or Italian lawn bowling,” said Wudtke. “It is a game where teams of two face another team of two and they roll a wooden ball about 30 to 90 feet and they try to get closest to a smaller ball called a pallino (that has been throw first) and the goal is to get to 12 points. It’s a game that has been in the United States since at least the 1900s.”
Wudtke said the game is similar to horseshoes with its method of scoring.
“As my dad used to say ‘close and almost, but no cigar.’ ”
Theresa Mickels, the co-president of Northern Illinois Bocce Ball Association located in Washington, said there can certainly be a strategy involved.
“When I first started out I had no strategy,” added Mickels, who has been playing for 29 years. “Just like everything when you start doing it, you just do it to have fun. Over the years as I played more and got experience, I developed a strategy. There are certainly different surfaces that teams like to play on. If you talk to each team, it would be different.”
Traditional bocce ball is played on courts, but many tournaments such as Toluca are played in yards, streets and alleys.
“We play all over town,” said Wudtke. “About the only place we don’t allow them to play is around the railroad tracks.”
The tournament, which has three divisions (men, women and youth 13 and under), was Sunday beginning in the morning and continuing late into the night. Players usually range in age from 8 to 80. The highest number of entries in the tournament was 2011 when 226 men’s teams, 100 women’s teams and 28 youth teams competed.
“You double that, plus if they brought a spouse who did not play or a child who did not play, and it brings a lot of people into town for the day or the weekend,” added Wudtke. “There are other things to do besides the tournament because there are craft shows, entertainment, bingo, a beer tent and a parade on Monday (which steps off at 2 p.m. with 120 entries).”
Mickels said there are a lot of things that draw people to the game.
“It’s a relatively cheap game that families can play in their yard,” she continued. “It’s a lot of things—the fun, the competition, the camaraderie. We had a priest that used to play in our tournaments and he kind of likened it to life. Sometimes you throw a ball and you think you know exactly where it is going and it just skirts off. Life kind of takes you in 20 different directions and so can a bocce ball.”
Bocce at the Village
GLT will hold its inaugural Bocce at the Village tournament Sept. 9 at Normandy Village, 1100 N. Beech St., Normal. The double-elimination is $30 for a two-person team and will also include live music, Stave wine and beer bar, coffee and food. Teams can register at WGLT.org.
The lead sponsors are Normandy Village, Hile Group and Town of Normal. Other sponsors are Waiting Room Records, Stave Wine Bar, Specs Around Town, Coffee Hound, Linda Kimber-Edward Jones Financial Advisor, Downtown Bloomington Association, The Garlic Press, Meltdown Creative Works and White Oak Brewing.
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