As the ball rolls close, the people get closer

The backyard of the Council on Aging center sports, unexpectedly, a fully-fledged bocce court. Complete with a scorekeeping device, stands for the 2-pound balls, and tables for spectators, it gets no shortage of use from its dedicated players.

The club of more than 60 members meets up to three times a week to play against one another and work on their craft. The enthusiasm was palpable when they took the court on the morning of May 17. All members were eager to assume their roles. Everyone flocked to the list hanging from the wall that revealed the groups for the day.

Organizer Pat Bibbo has a very strategic way of assembling the teams: picking names out of a hat. Bibbo has been dedicated to the club for the past nine years, and he explained how the game was nowhere near as big as it is now when he took over.

“I came in 2014, and all they had was Tuesdays from 10 to 12 with about 14 players,” said Bibbo.

Despite his heritage, Bibbo had no prior knowledge of the Italian sport.

“I hadn’t seen the game before and I was only here about a month when I realized this has the potential to be a lot of fun,” Bibbo said. “I never saw it, let alone played it.”

As his new hobby developed into a passion, Bibbo then worked to expand its fanbase. He opened a Thursday practice session, and when that gained steam he started the travel team. A handful of the most dedicated bocce players travel to take on surrounding COAs.

“Swampscott, Peabody, Windham, Danvers, and us as the fifth… and we’re as large as the other five together,” Bibbo said.

The five teams also have an annual tournament, when they gather for a full day of food, beverage, and bocce. A single trophy is shared between the victor of the given year.

“The winning team puts their names on the trophy, just like the Stanley Cup,” joked Bibbo.

Even with all the improvements made by Bibbo since he became organizer, none of it would have been possible without Council on Aging regulars Liz Michaud and Alice Campbell. Around fifteen years ago, they were simply looking for an outdoor activity for the community and found bocce. Campbell died in May, but Michaud is continuing to grow the sport at the COA. Like Bibbo, she was not familiar with bocce in any capacity. She caught word of it through her search for an inclusive game, and started playing once a week with a small group. She credits Bibbo for organizing and polishing the club so it could grow.

“He’s unbelievable,” exclaimed Michaud. “He’s the one that brought in the rules and all the structure, and it’s just blossomed.”

Once the club grew a sizable amount under the leadership of Michaud and Bibbo, they had the court built. Michaud said the accessibility of the sport is another contributor to its success.

“What makes this such a great sport is that anybody can do it,” Michaud emphasized. “You can be very athletic and do really well, but you can be less athletic and succeed too.”

Michaud struggled to find a negative aspect of the bocce club, and only lamented that they cannot play during the winter season. For her personally, health has impeded her from playing as much as she used to, but she is still as involved and passionate as ever.

“It’s been fabulous… everybody has gotten to know each other and it’s very social and that’s what I enjoy most now,” she said.

John Capellotti is one member who brought some seasoned bocce experience to the table during the club’s early stages. Before coming to Marblehead, he played in Florida and learned a lot from “old-country Italians.” Michaud also credited him as the groundskeeper of the court for many years, until his back prevented him from doing so.
However, that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the top players in the group and competing on the travel team.

A decade and a half in, the bocce community is stronger than ever. One thing that never seems to get old is the joy they get from playing together.