Endless Summer 2019
The Bocce Challenge: Stone Harbor’s ‘Super Bowl’ a Battle of the Sexes
By Sam Donnellon
Pam Talone lags her shot to begin women’s league game.
Peg Sutton was on a stroll with her grandchildren in early August when she stopped at a familiar site. The bocce courts on 96th Street were full of people, just as they are every Wednesday morning during the summer. That’s when her eight-team league consisting entirely of retired women assembles for the usual combo platter of play, talk and, yeah, some occasional good-natured taunts.
These people, though, were all mostly retired men. In a league of their own.
Not overly impressed, Sutton issued a challenge right then and there: Your best versus our best, for bragging rights to the town.
“I said, ‘What do you think, guys?’’’ recalls Tim Gear, a longtime Recreation Department fixture who plays in the men’s league – and officiates the women’s games every Wednesday morning.
“And they said, ‘What do you think?’
“I said, ‘Let’s get it on.’ “
Roe Hufner demonstrates her championship form.
And so they will on Sept. 5, the first Stone Harbor bocce “Super Bowl’’ showdown, pitting the best team in the men’s league at the time (their season ends Sept. 13) against the already crowned women’s champion (they finish a few weeks earlier). It’s a best-of-three format, and while it won’t be a long, cold winter for the loser – most will head south soon after, regardless of the outcome – pride will definitely be on the line.
“The guys aren’t taking anything for granted,’’ Gear says. ‘’Two of the guys I play with also play down in Florida over the winter. And they say down there, the women are the best.’’
Locally, Gear is the most qualified to judge that. He’s been playing with the men for years, and when the women began a league of their own three summers ago, he was there to organize things – and settle disputes.
That’s right, disputes. Gear and his quickly accessed tape measure allow for play to continue smoothly, so much so that when Gear’s work duties threatened to put him elsewhere this summer, the women reversed that call in a hurry.
With his wide, sun-shielding hat and endless smile, Gear has become a Bocce Godfather of sorts. He issues points, keeps the standings and joins in on the jokes.
All eyes are on Connie Dillon as she competes in league play in early August.
Bocce has its roots in the Roman Empire, and Italian immigrants are generally credited with introducing it to North America and nurturing it into what is now a widely played summer game. It is simple in structure and scoring, the goal being to lob or roll your ball closest to the small white ball, or pallino, thrown out by one team at the start of each round. Teams receive a point each for the number of balls they place closer to the pallino (“jack’’ is another term commonly used) than the opposing team has. Which means games can be won quickly if your team is on its game and your opponent is not.
“This is exactly where we want you – 1 to 10,’’ Pam Talon says facetiously to Roe Hufner as her team is being swamped by one of the league’s top teams. “Wouldn’t want it any other way.’’
Her team lost shortly after that.
(right) Pam Talone (left) and Cathy Hammer celebrate a team win.
It’s not all a laughing matter, though. A competitive streak runs through the morning’s proceedings. Most of the league’s teams are separated by a win or two, and the endless chatter isn’t for everyone.
“Sometimes you have to get out of the social part and really focus,’’ says Sandy Slabik. “And I can do that.’’
Slabik, 74, is a former athlete, as are many of the women involved. Some still play tennis regularly, some golf, some have purchased their own bocce set since they got involved in the league, practicing on the hard sand when the tide rolls out.
But like golf, such practice doesn’t prepare them for the variations to their artificial-turf playing surface that weather can inflict.
“Some of us come and throw a few beforehand just to gauge the speed,’’ Slabik says. “If there is rain, it’s a whole lot slower.’’
Says Hufner, another former athlete and one of the league’s better players: “It’s competitive. Yet we want to have some fun.’’
The “Super Bowl’’ will be emblematic of that. Several women eye the writer and photographer for this story warily at first – “I thought we were being scouted,’’ says Cathy Hammer, 68 and still an active tennis player.
As for scouting the men? Well, besides Sutton’s chance encounter that day, most of the women confess to being unaware of the opposing league’s skill level.
“We usually get a drone,’’ Slabik says. “Take pictures.’’
She was kidding. Probably.
Then, again, she’s the one who talked about getting down to business.
“Maybe we can make this an annual thing,’’ Gear says, still smiling. “It should be a lot of fun.’’
BOCCE BATTLE OF THE SEXES
For the ultimate Stone Harbor Championship
9am, Wednesday, Sept. 4
Stone Harbor Bocce Courts
97th Street and Seng Place
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