NAPLES — As a player in the Southwest Florida Bocce League and as the league’s secretary, Richard Curreri has witnessed first-hand the growth of the sport, a quiet outdoors game where participants roll balls toward a smaller ball, known as a pallino.
The league’s size has doubled in recent years from eight teams to a dozen to its current 16. The teams come from residential communities in Collier and Lee counties. Curreri said the league has a waiting list comprised of other communities seeking entrance.
“It’s great to see bocce grow down here,” Curreri said last Friday as he competed with his team from Carlton Lakes in a match at Mediterra in Naples. “The Southwest Florida Bocce League should be really proud. We’ve got all these communities getting involved and meeting all these people.”
Curreri, who moved to Naples from Braintree, Mass. after he retired from the Polaroid Corporation, estimates that the number of people he’s met through bocce in recent years is in the hundreds. He met more players during last week’s match as teams from Carlton Lake, Bonita Springs’ Pelican Landing and Estero’s Lighthouse Bay visited Mediterra.
Proof of bocce’s popularity in the area can be found at Mediterra, which didn’t have any bocce courts two years ago. Now there are two pristine courts nestled next to the community’s sports club. Once the courts were built, residents weren’t shy about joining a sport that many of them had never played. About 500 residents play bocce within the Mediterra community.
Mediterra’s eight-player travel team — the one that competes in the Southwest Florida Bocce League — took its lumps as a rookie member last year. “Last year they were almost at the bottom of the pile of the standings,” Curreri said, “but this year they’ve improved so much.”
In fact, Mediterra pulled off the day’s biggest upset when it beat Curreri’s first place team from Carlton Lakes on Friday.
“We’re sort of average this year, although we beat the top team today. Sometimes flukes happen,” said Mediterra player Peter Braaten, who splits his time between Naples and Toronto.
The age of players in the league — which features men and women — ranges from the 50s up to at least the late 80s.
For John Bracco, captain of the Pelican Landing team, picking up a bocce ball brings back memories of his childhood.
“I’ve been playing for almost 50 years,” Bracco said. “I learned how to play in the northern part of Italy. As a young boy, I used to watch people playing bocce. It’s very popular in Italy. Anybody can play.”
While Bracco’s tenure in bocce dates back decades, the sport is far newer to his Pelican Landing teammate Fe Tavis. A native of The Philippines, Tavis has lived in America for more than 30 years and started playing bocce two years. She describes herself as a “hard thrower” of the ball, but said she’s still learning a game which she now plays four times a week. Playing in the Southwest Florida Bocce League has acclimated her to the way others play.
“I like it because you can learn all their tricks,” she said.
Pelican Landing, which is home to about 250 bocce players, will host the Southwest Florida Bocce League championship on March 25.
Before a champion is determined, there are still five weeks of regular season action, playoff spots and division champions to be determined. Also, the league will hold its first Bocce for Blue prostate cancer benefit on Feb. 25 at Village Walk in Bonita Springs.
“This is our way of giving back to the community,” Curreri said.
For more information about the Southwest Florida Bocce League, contact Richard Curreri at (239) 597-0814