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Bocce gaining traction in US

Ancient sport on roll in new venues

ORION TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- One could attribute Jorge Moreno's success in the ancient sport of bocce to a runaway kite.

He was inching along a rooftop to retrieve a kite when he slipped. A 30-foot fall broke his knee that day 30 years ago, ending his days as a soccer player.

Moreno turned in his soccer ball for bocce balls, playing with the ''old people" in his native Uruguay. Now 44 and an American citizen, he has since earned several US titles and made nine appearances in Bocce World Cup competitions across the globe.

Earlier this month, Moreno moved from Kearny, N.J., to Michigan. The reason: bocce.

He wanted to be closer to a new bocce arena in this northern Detroit suburb. The year-old 32,000-square-foot Palazzo di Bocce is home to 10 indoor courts and referred to by some as the mecca of the bocce world.

Moreno was among about 90 competitors at last week's US Bocce Championships at the Palazzo, which also will host the World Bocce Championships in September -- the first time since 1996 that the international competition has been held in the United States.

The Palazzo expects players from 26 countries, including the United States and Canada, several European and South American nations, two African countries and China.

The sport -- which might be up to 7,000 years old and features elements of bowling, golf, and shuffleboard -- has been popular in Europe and South America for decades, and enthusiasts say interest is spreading throughout the United States.

While it's hard to put a number on the total of American bocce players, the sport has been growing, said John C. Ross, president of the Monte Sereno, Calif.-based US Bocce Federation.

He said the federation has a database of about 2,500 members and roughly 45 active clubs, a 30 percent increase from five years ago. But, he said, there likely are hundreds of other US clubs not affiliated with the federation.

Evidence of the sport's popularity can be found in the growing number of courts being built in city parks, Ross said, and in the countless enthusiasts who play in backyards, on rundown courts, or in grassy areas.

Beyond that is the emergence of centers such as the Palazzo, which has hosted hundreds of parties for corporations, celebrities, and other groups since it opened last year. A similar center, Campo di Bocce in Los Gatos, Calif., has created interest in that area, manager Joe Morelli said.

''Facilities like this, I think, are going to bring the game to another level," Ross said.

That level, he said, creates a game much different from ''the guys in the park with a cigar and a glass of wine."

The game starts with the tossing of a small pallino ball. The goal is to earn points by getting one's 4 1/2-inch bocce balls closer to the pallino than a competitor, often by blasting the enemy's ball out of play.

On regulation-sized synthetic courts, the rules are strict. And players like Michael Lapcevich can get intense.

Moving up on his toes before taking a short, fast jog and launching a ball underhand, Lapcevich sent his hard ''raffa" shot flying over two other balls to blast out Moreno's lead with a loud clack.

The maneuver helped Lapcevich defeat Moreno in a championship round of the punto raffa volo competition in the US championships.

It marked the second national win for the 48-year-old resident of Hermitage, Pa. Lapcevich first played bocce by tournament rules four years ago, surprising many when he earned the right to represent the United States in France.

''I'm not sure why I got hooked. I guess for football you've got to be so big, for basketball you've got to be so tall," said the 5-foot-9-inch, 160-pound Lapcevich. ''But this is a game I can do until I retire."

On another court, Jo Ann Jacobs proved that bocce is not just a man's game.

After earning a bronze medal with a win over Nancy D'Agnolo, Jacobs let out a loud cheer.

''This is my first medal in this event," a teary-eyed Jacobs said.

Jacobs, 61, from Stockton, Calif., was introduced to the game about three years ago when she met her husband -- and coach -- Ronald Jacobs.

D'Agnolo, 69, is a native of Italy but she first played bocce about 10 years ago in Chicago. She remembers watching older people play in Europe but says, ''It wasn't a lady's game in my time."

Teresa Passaglia, also of Chicago, hopes to see that change. The 52-year-old native of Ecuador is this year's national champion and will represent the US at the world championships in September. She's been playing since 1991.

''Bocce, to me, is a very friendly game. It's a game that brings everyone together," she said.

While Passaglia said she's seen an increase in younger people joining the bocce ranks, she doesn't think the number of female competitors is growing.

''I'm hoping that someday we'll get that," Passaglia said. ''Hopefully this will be the place that will bring them."

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