A Princeton man hosts tournaments on his own field built for the ancient sport of pétanque | Sports


PRINCETON — The flags of Italy and the United States flew last Wednesday evening at the site of a sporting competition like no other in the region.

A sport with a history dating back thousands of years was going on in the backyard of a Princeton businessman.

Every Wednesday night during the warmer months for the past five years, Ralph Modena has invited some of his friends and neighbors to throw balls on a custom-made court during a bocce tournament.

“It’s not life or death, but it’s fun to be competitive,” Modena said. “The great thing is you can play it until you’re 80 (or older) – as long as you can lean…”.

Bocce combines elements found in lawn bowling, curling and croquet. It can be played with two, four or more players positioned at either end of a long rectangular court.

The game is divided into a series of “frames” which begin by throwing a small target ball, the pellino, onto the field. Each team in the competition then tries to roll their team’s balls as close to the pellino as possible.

During a frame, only the side with the closest ball gets points.

As well as requiring a delicate touch for the ball to stop at a desirable spot, bocce also involves strategy since one player’s ball can be used to push the other team’s ball away from the target or to send the target to another resting place.

Petanque spread widely from Italy during the Roman Empire, taking its modern name from an Italian word with a Latin root. Modena, who is of Italian descent, embraced the ancient sport years ago.

The earliest known depiction of the game was found in a painting on the wall of an Egyptian tomb, dated to 5200 BC. AD, according to the World Bocce League website.

Modena has made many visits to Italy, the adopted home of petanque, and decided to introduce this sport to his friends.

“I’ve had this idea for probably 15, 20 years,” he said.

“I had seen (petanque) and I had just heard of it. I knew people in Clarksburg or Fairmont who had a court.

He had also visited bocce tournaments that had been held for years on “courts in northern New Jersey and New York,” he said. “These Italians, they are sitting there talking to each other about rubbish. … They’re just going to sit there and have a good time.

But he did not obtain immediate support for the construction of a plot in his garden.

Modena said: “I talked to the neighbors about putting one on and (they said): ‘You’re crazy.'”

However, he said: “It went well. We had a good first year. »

In the first season of the Princeton competition, spectators and competitors sat on lawn chairs scattered on the hill above the field. In the second year, Modena had a large pavilion built. It soon included an outdoor pizza oven.

“The Amish came in and built the lodge in one day. It was just amazing,” Modena said.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Modena said, the competition continued under reduced conditions. “We had a real small group that was very careful (to avoid exposure to COVID),” Modena said.

Regular weekly contestant Lucky Goforth said he started participating because “I wanted to see what Ralph had done. … When Ralph started this, I thought, ‘That was crazy. What is he doing here?

“And the next thing you know, there are like 30 people coming every week. It’s become this huge social thing. It’s just a wonderful thing that he and his wife have done (to) share with so many people.”

Another attendee, Rob Pawlowski, said the best thing about pétanque nights is “the camaraderie, really. People come here, and people you haven’t seen in a long time, and you only see them here. The older you get, the more you appreciate that.

Modena said the group was “a good mix of folks from Bluefield and Princeton”. A regular participant told him recently, “I don’t know too many things that are done in this field that have this kind of mixture.

With increased attendance at the weekly gathering, Modena had a second court built earlier this year. This rectangle is 90 feet long, he says proudly.

“We use a hard surface, which is the one currently used on tennis courts,” Modena said.

“I saw him (played) on grass. On indoor courts, it’s on a rubber (surface) like vinyl floors.

“I hate to play on a pitch where, you do a perfect roll and all of a sudden it veers to the right because it’s not level, or there’s a seam there or something. So I I just said, ‘No, if I have to do this, we’ll do it right.’

“I guarantee you it’s one of the best surfaces you’ll ever see outdoors.”

“It’s a lot of work. I (work) eight to 10 hours a week just to keep the pitch in place,” he said. This includes dragging a heavy cylindrical roller repeatedly from high down on the playing surface to flatten bumps and pockmarks from ball impact.

His attention to detail includes attempting to remove small piles of gravel grains left behind, called “fines”, which could deflect a bullet’s path.

Besides wearing the hats of maintenance man and tournament manager, Modena also acted as a gracious host. In an Italian household, this includes arranging food and drink.

On Wednesday afternoon, a few volunteers concocted pizzas made from scratch in the Modena kitchen, for Pawlowski to bake in the outdoor oven. Soon, a dozen dessert plates arrive in the hands of the Modena hosts.

“All of these people are very selfless,” Modena said. “They bring food. I don’t make it compulsory, but if they wish, they can bring side dishes and desserts.

“It’s a community. We’re all having a great time,” Modena said. “We never argued.”

Goforth, asked if local pétanque competitors take the sport seriously, replied: “Some do. Most don’t. I mean, some people are very serious and good at it, and they play every week. and I play twice a year.

Modena estimated the turnout to be, “I would say, an average of 30 to 34 per night.” On Wednesday, the crowd was around 45 people, including spectators.

“I want to reach 50,” he said.

“I would like to have 25 serious people here who will play… If anyone wants to come and play, give me a call.”

The phone number for Modena is 304-716-6164.

He said he reserved the right to assess whether an occasional petanque guest might show up “for the wrong reason”.

“I try to control them a bit,” he said.

“As well as pizza, I offer really good Italian wine and I’m not charging for it – at the moment. That might have to change. (But) I don’t want anyone coming just to drink.

Modena plans to conclude this pétanque season with “the championships” on October 9. He said the competition would run “all day and into the night”.

As a grand prize, he said, “We have the most flashy belt in the world…like the WWF. Oh, it’s the most conspicuous belt. Gina Preservati’s father did.

Goforth said of the Modena bocce nights: “You would have to (cross) many states to find something like that. The quality of the courses, the magnificent setting, the cuisine.

“It’s like a ‘Greenbrier-type place.’ I mean, it’s amazing, what he has here.

Between throwing toppings on pizzas and serving as a judge for dozens of bocce executives, Princeton volunteer Pat Johnson said, “I love what Ralph has done here to bring people together.”


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