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Small Town, Big League. The Bocce Ball Club of Murphysboro IL

Kelsey Wright lines up her shot during a Bocce Ball match in Murphysboro, March 20th 2024, Ethan Holder.
Ethan Holder
Kelsey Wright lines up her shot during a Bocce Ball match in Murphysboro, March 20th 2024, Ethan Holder.

A breeze blowing over your face, bustling groups of people cheering from picnic tables, three courts of deep brown sand with balls rolling as players look on with anticipation. Players call out to the ball as if their words could guide it to glory. However, no matter the outcome, all in attendance have smiles on their faces as they come together with their community. This is the identity of the Murphysboro Bocce Club.

Bocce Ball is a traditional Italian game where players aim to throw or roll their balls onto a sand filled court and be the closest to the target ball, known as the pallino, to score points. This club functions similarly to many sports leagues with regular matches, tournaments, and teams competing for seeding to have a leg up in the final tournament and be crowned champions. However, Joe Melvin, a player in the league, says one aspect of the league makes it special.

“Comradery. One word, people. There’s just a lot of great people down here. It’s a great group of people down here every night” Melvin said.

The people who make up the league are mostly from Murphysboro with some coming from Marion, Herrin, and Carbondale. Over its 13 year lifespan, the league has grown to 58 teams this spring season. The board members have worked hard over this decade to advance the league.

“The people who are in charge have done a great job. It’s all volunteer work pretty much. When we started it was just two courts and a porta-potty out back. The pavilion was new when we started. We have added the third court and this and that. That is solely because of the members and people in charge” Melvin said.

While the league has blossomed into having dozens of teams, multiple days of games a week, and multiple tournaments, this was not expected when it was created. League president, Dan Baker, says the league has grown to be an amazing way to connect the community.

“It was founded by local community members who were interested in getting an activity started and it blossomed from there. It had humble beginnings but we have progressed to 58 teams this spring and I couldn’t tell you how many players. It’s a great thing for our community and brings people in the community together” Baker said.

The league may bring people together but it also sparks a lot of friendly competition. There is no cash prize for the league but winners do not go home empty-handed.

“We play for trinkets. If you win your league night you win a keychain, if you win the tournament, you get a towel, you win the whole season, you may get a mug” Baker says.

These may seem like regular household items but Baker says that does not stop players from trying their hardest to win them.

“We are playing for trinkets but you would think it was the Stanley Cup because they are highly prized and coveted. It’s more like fun and pride and no fortune or fame behind any of this” Baker said.

Word about the fun and friendly competition has brought many new players into the league. However, this does not keep inexperienced players from winning. Denise Miller, who has played in the league since 2017, says her best season was her very first.

“The first year we won a tournament and we won for the whole season which was quite phenomenal because we had never played before. It was beginner's luck right. After that, we have done pretty good but not always win but we usually get up into the top ten” Miller said.

The trend of winning some seasons and losing others is not only true for Miller but is true for many others in the league as well. Rachel Nehring, a player for over a decade, says she even has some seasons where she is at the bottom of the league.

“We’ve done great. Some seasons we have won and some seasons we have been at the bottom. We have all been playing for so long that anyone can win at any time. So, sometimes it's luck but it is always fun” Nehring said.

Even though there is a luck element to the game, this does not keep Nehring from having complete confidence in her team.

“Oh we are totally going to dominate this year. I just feel it and I just want to” Nehring said.

Even with this confidence, on some nights, beginners can win or long-time players can. Every night seemingly crowns a new winner. Joe Melvin says this is due to the sport not requiring a lot of athleticism.

“There's people here that never played any athletics and there are people here who have and it doesn’t matter. It’s just about practice and having fun. It's the reason we have grown” Melvin said.

The league offers a community activity that anyone can participate in, whether for competition or just fun. However, the league does a lot more than just that. League president Dan Baker says the tournaments also serve as fundraisers.

“We will have a tournament that’s coming up that’s for relay for life, for cancer. We’ve got a tournament that is coming up that is for the Murphysboro education fund. We also have the for pete's sake tournament that raises money for the Bocce Club. It's a big fundraiser for us” Baker said.

The league provides what it can for the community but none of it would be possible without the people who show up. Matches are at 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday with the first tournament being on April 6th. Baker invites anyone interested in playing, whether they are in the community or not, to come and give it a shot.

Ethan Holder is a student contributor for WSIU Public Broadcasting located at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Contact WSIU Radio at 618-453-6101 or email wsiunews@wsiu.org
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