Smithfield Senior Center ready for bocce game against politicians

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Pétanque is perhaps an old game that conjures up images of players who are also, well, old. But make no mistake: on this court, it’s not a pastime for the faint-hearted.

Behind the Smithfield Senior Center, just across the living room adorned with autumnal decor and a resoundingly retro-looking dining room, you’ll find chatter, tape measures and serious competitors.

I had been on the field for 15 minutes before a “hello?! exasperated echoed from the other end of the field as one player tried to get another’s attention.

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Pierre Massoyan is all business while lining up a bocce shot during practice at the Smithfield Senior Center.  On Tuesday, the seniors will face a team of government officials in the "Big Wig Bocce Battle."

The center has had a bocce team for as long as activities director Kate McAdam-Prickett – who identifies herself as team leader – can remember, and it’s been almost two decades.

But this will only mark their third year facing local officials in what has been dubbed the ‘Big Wig Bocce Battle’.

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It all started small in 2018 with a handful of local leaders in Smithfield, including the city manager and the fire and police chiefs. Although they were younger than the seniors who challenged them, the youth advantage didn’t offer much of an advantage.

“It was so [an] little uplifting and fun tournament that ultimately didn’t last that long, because the seniors pretty much crushed them,” McAdam-Prickett said.

Bocce is a game of inches, with points awarded to the team whose balls come closest to the smallest target ball, called the jack.

The seniors won again in 2019, continuing their unbeaten streak and then taking a two-year pandemic-induced break. On Tuesday, they will face even bigger bigwigs than before.

Not only will local officials return to court, but Governor Dan McKee, U.S. Representative David Cicilline and State Representative Bernard Hawkins, who represents Smithfield, are expected to attend.

They will face seasoned players, including year-round athlete Carol Brown, one of the center’s so-called snowbirds, who spends the cold months in Florida where she can continue training.

Arlene Gentile, Rose Marie Cipriano and Carol Brown pose with the trophy for their victory over the Politicians at the inaugural Big Wig Bocce Battle of 2018.

Sitting next to a huge gold trophy, Brown was one of three players who stopped to discuss the game.

To his right was Rose Marie Cipriano, who has been playing for 12 years and still remembers her first partner.

“She was tough, and she had a mouth on her too, it was terrible,” Cipriano said. “But she was good.”

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Next to Cipriano was Arlene Gentile, who entered the game about 20 years ago after her late husband, Ben, retired and was unsure how to spend his time. Gentile suggested a trip to the senior center.

“Bocce was very, very popular,” she recalls. “So when we came to sign up he was part of a team and that was an opening. That’s all.”

Henry Cipriano officiates during a bocce game during a practice session at the Smithfield Senior Center.

Stop for a moment to watch the game and you’ll notice it’s not just about sportsmanship, it’s about socializing.

“First of all, if we haven’t been together for the week, we have to catch up on what everyone else is doing, and we all have grandchildren or great-grandchildren, so [we’re] talk about family and what’s going on,” Cipriano said. “Or if there’s been something hot with the school department, I get the questions.”

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As a member of the Smithfield school committee, Cipriano was the only one in the group to play for the big shots. For her, the experience of being on the opposing team can be summed up in one word: “Stressful”.

Rose Marie Cipriano makes a practice throw at the senior center.  As a member of the Smithfield school committee, she will play for the Politicians team in the next tournament.

“Some have never played before,” Cipriano said. “They have no idea what the game is, that you have to get as close to that little white ball as possible.”

While she won’t play alongside her cronies in the center, she doesn’t expect her competitors to indulge the politicians.

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When asked what they could expect this time, Cipriano answered in two words: “No survivors.”

Providence Journal editor Amy Russo, a transplanted New Yorker, is looking for new ways to find out about her adopted state. If you have any suggestions for this topic, email him at [email protected].

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