BICKNELL — When asked about the mechanics of playing bocce ball, members of the Champions Together team at North Knox Jr. Sr. High School let out a collective groan.
“It's a lot of words,” said sophomore Victor Frye.
“It's not easy to explain,” added senior John Lewis with a smile. “But it is easy to play.”
The Indiana High School Athletic Association's Champions Together program, a partnership with Special Olympics, last year added the sport of bocce ball to its line up. The program offers special needs students, referred to in the program as “athletes,” to play a handful of traditional sports alongside “partners,” or traditional students.
When Sam Alderfer, a science teacher at North Knox, heard about the addition of bocce, he thought it a great alternative to some of the more physically-demanding, already established Champions Together sports — basketball, kickball, volleyball and track.
Plus, he'd been playing bocce for a couple of years with some friends, and he thought it held great potential for the school corporation's special need students.
He'd never considered himself the coaching type, he said, but bocce — well, that he could do.
“I'm kind of a nerdy guy,” he said with a proud smile. “I'm not inclined to coach much, but when this came along, I thought, 'I'd better volunteer for something.'
“And the inclusiveness,” Alderfer said, “that's the No. 1 reason why Champions Together is pushing (bocce) as a sport. It's easy to start up a team. The materials are easy and inexpensive to get, and it doesn't take a lot of space or special field to play.”
Alderfer, who coaches alongside fellow North Knox teacher Jody Craig, sought to create the bocce team when school began in August. He had about a dozen eager takers, and they began practicing for 30 minutes on Tuesday afternoons after school.
Many of the athletes and partners had experience with other Champions Together sports; North Knox has been a participant in the program for the last four years. But they were eager to learn more about a sport few of them had ever heard of.
“I'd heard the name bocce from other people, but I didn't know anything about it,” said Braiden Felker, a sophomore “partner” in the Champions Together program.
“I'd heard a little bit about it from my mom,” said sophomore athlete Nick Crichfield. “She's Italian, and it's an Italian sport.
“And once I learned to play, (I realized) it's perfect for people who maybe aren't athletic or just don't like sports,” he said. “It's not like football or basketball, but it's still a fun thing to do.”
Sophomore athlete Victor Frye agreed.
“It's easy to learn,” he said. “Anybody can play, even if you're physically unable to play other sports.”
The concept of bocce isn't necessarily complicated, once you learn the basics, the athletes and partners agreed. Using a lane similar to that in bowling — albeit smaller — a small yellow ball, or a pallino, is tossed into the playing area.
Teammates then “bowl” larger bocce balls in an effort to get as close to the pallino ball as possible.
The game consists of a predetermined number of “frames,” and each frame is complete once all bocce balls have been thrown and subsequent points awarded.
In short, the team with the most bocce balls in close proximity to the pallino wins.
The North Knox Champions Together bocce team took their newfound skills to Carmel two weeks ago where, for the first time in North Knox's time in the Champions Together program, competed in a statewide championship.
North Knox defeated Elwood Junior-Senior High School and Indianapolis Roncalli High School before losing to defending state bocce champion Carmel High School.
The final four teams — out of nearly 20 — were North Knox, Carmel, Fishers High School and East Noble High School. North Knox defeated East Noble in the consolation round to earn 3rd place overall
“And we were the smallest team there,” said Frye.
“Even being the underdogs, the newcomers, we managed to get third,” said Felker with pride.
The bocce team members said they broke out their bocce set during Homecoming festivities recently and encouraged others to join in. Soon, they said, other students were giving it a try as were principals and teachers, even children from local families.
Alderfer said the game, while enjoyable, teaches players about strategy and forces them to “think ahead.”
“These guys picked it up so quickly,” he said. “The placement of the pallino, for instance, that's important. You need to know what kind of player you are, what kind of players your teammates are.
“Sportsmanship, too,” Alderfer said. “It teaches you to be a good sport, and I was very proud of these guys, the way they handled their wins and their losses.”
But for the North Knox athletes and partners who decided to take up bocce this year, learning the new sport ended up being about a lot more than skill sets and strategy.
For many of them, it became about friendship.
“What I liked is how everybody came together,” Felker said. “It's a calming game, everyone is friendly to one another.”
“I wasn't liking school,” said Crichfield, who just started at North Knox this year. “I was having a hard time. But after we went to the state championship and after we went to Golden Corral (Buffet), I was stuffed and going to take a nap on the bus and thought, 'I'm glad I went to this school.
“At my old school, I wouldn't have had this kind of an opportunity,” he said. “I found out who my real friends are.
“I found where I belong.”