Student-athletes at TC program working at golf, track and field and bocce ball

It’s called bocce, a form of lawn bowling with some similarities to shuffleboard. Next to soccer, it is the most popular game in the world.

The forerunner to bocce – throwing a ball toward a target – is the oldest game known to mankind and a form of the game was played as early as 5000 B.C. by the Egyptians, with graphic representatives of figures tossing a ball or polished stone dating to 5200 B.C.

The ancient Greeks and then the Romans played a game similar to bocce. Over the centuries, the game’s fans have included the Greek physician Ipocrates, Roman Emperor Augustus, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake and George Washington.

Bocce is very popular in Italy and in Italian-American communities in the United States. Its fans and participants are said to include numerous reputed members of the Mafia.

According to legend, Sir Frances Drake refused to set out to defend England against the Spanish Armada until he finished a game, proclaiming, "First we finish the game, then we’ll deal with the Armada!"

And George Washington built a court at Mount Vernon in the 1780s.


None of the illustrious fans of the game from long ago – and absolutely no Mafia members -- were present on Saturday when about a dozen players representing Taft College’s Transition to Independent Living team assembled at a makeshift bocce court at the West Side Recreation and Park District facility in Taft.

The TIL students were there to practice for coming Special Olympics competitions, including a four-day tournament at the University of Southern California in June. Bocce is one of three sports offered in the spring for Special Olympics competitions for the TIL students. The other two are track and golf.

Brooke Ambrose is an instructional assistant at Taft College and a coach for the TIL Special Olympics team.

A bocce team has four members, Ambrose said. In completion, each team has four hard rubber balls about the size of a softball or grapefruit. The balls for each team will be a different color, such as dark green or red. A white target ball is thrown first and must land between the half-way line and the three-quarters line of the court, she said.

To score a point, team members then try to roll their ball the closest to the white ball -- including by hitting the other team’s ball nearest the target ball and knocking it away. A tape-measure is a must for competitions. A ball that goes all the way to the end of the court and hits the border is dead.

“Practice is held once a week for about an hour and a half to two hours, on Saturdays,” Ambrose said. “We go to tournaments throughout the season. The majority of these tournaments are held in Santa Clarita and Santa Maria.”

“One of the bigger tournaments we are going to is at USC from June 5-8. These are the summer games, which hosts Special Olympics athletes from different areas. The students are selected, and stay at condos on campus to play in their individual sports.”

TIL’s bocce team will play the team from BARC in Bakersfield to practice for upcoming tournaments in April and June, Ambrose said. Special Olympics teams must compete in two tournaments to qualify for the summer games, she said.

Medal winners

Three members of the TIL bocce team are sophomores at the college and competed at the 2013 summer Special Olympics in Long Beach.

Tamish Rao is from Claremont and participated in the Special Olympics in 2013. Rao has won gold and silver medals in both bocce and bowling, a fall Special Olympics sport.

“It was very good,” he said. “I haven’t played bocce too much, more bowling.”

Vanessa Biaggi is from San Jose. Like Rao, Biaggi has earned gold medals in both bocce and bowling.

“My first time to compete in sports was at Taft College,” she said. “I have talked to others (in TIL) about competing.”

She enjoyed the summer Special Olympics last year and had the opportunity to meet a lot of people, Biaggi said.

Deanna Smith is from Corona but her first experience with Special Olympics was in Georgia when she was 9 years old.

In addition to bocce, she has earned medals in bowling and swimming events including freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and the relay.

“I did good last year in the Long Beach tournament,” Smith said. “We had a good time (at the Special Olympics).”  

 Coaches and players

The coaches for Bocce are Gabe Gonzalez and Cherie Napoleon. TIL students competing in bocce are:  Kyle Roesser, Kris Isbell, Grant Davenport, Aaron Graff, Randy Rohr, Biaggi, Smith, Maggie Nishimura, Rao and Kevin Stone.

Napoleon has been teaching cooking classes for the TIL students for three years and joined the bocce coaching staff two months ago.

Her introduction to Special Olympics was through her nephew, Brandon Smith, who is an officer with the Berkeley Police Department and the agency’s liaison with Special Olympics.

Smith was born and raised in Taft and graduated from Taft Union High School and Taft College, where he was student body president in the 1970s, Napoleon said.

“He (Smith) inspired me to get involved with the program,” she said. “This is such a great program.

“I’m amazed with the enthusiasm the students show. They get to go and meet and compete with other students.”

The coaches for track are Pearl Herrera and Ambrose.  TIL track competitors are: Lorena Murray, Joe Rockwell, Stacey Fantino, Adam Fuentes, Molly Patterson, Gabe Zoger, Jori Trammell and Daniel Desmond.

The TIL track team members had to delay their practice on Saturday until a high school track meet at Taft Union High School was completed.

The coaches for golf are Lee Schryver and Phil Centeno. Austin Higgins, Alex Carroll and Andres Martinez compete in golf for TIL.

On Saturday they were out on the links at Buena Vista Golf Course.