Sonoma teens play pétanque
Team hopes to compete in Japan in very French game
By BLEYS W. ROSE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The hopes of the United States ride on the skills, the pinpoint accuracy, the competitive grit of four Sonoma Valley High School teens who are headed for Japan to compete in the world junior championship of pétanque.
See, that's the problem.
Outside of Europe, the game of pétanque (pronounced pay-tonk) is pretty obscure in comparison to its boisterous Italian brother, bocce, or its cultured English cousin, lawn bowling.
Scrappier than bocce, pétanque is played without court boundaries and is more suited to the sandlot than bocce's manicured surfaces. Played with silver metallic balls half the size and weight of bocce's, the game has a similar goal of scoring points by tossing balls closer to a target ball than your opponent.
"I tell friends I am on the U.S. team going to the world championship, and most have no idea what I am talking about," said Brendan Cohen, a 16-year-old sophomore at Sonoma Valley High. "Most think it's some bowling game old people play in parks."
It appeals to Cohen and his young teammates because it was easy to learn, yet can be competitive as well as fun to play simply as idle recreation.
Cohen is one of four Sonoma teens for whom ardent supporters in the Valley of the Moon Pétanque Club are trying to raise money to send to the world junior pétanque championships that start in mid-July in Suwa, Japan.
The Sonoma group has a national reputation for talent among the 35 U.S. clubs that comprise a loose national federation with only 1,400 registered players.
"We've raised enough money to send them there; we just don't have enough to bring them back," jokes club President Richard Bagel, a Santa Rosa software packaging designer, who stumbled upon the game one day 10 years ago at Sonoma's Depot Park.
Bagel concedes pétanque is an arcane sport dominated largely by western Europeans and is a long way from being featured on ESPN.
"We are not going to beat the foreigners at their game," Bagel said. "But four kids from our club are going to show that pétanque can become an indigenous sport to Americans."
Ed Porto, a graphics designer from Sonoma who serves as the team's coach, said the team's goal is to place somewhere in the middle of the pack of 30 nations sending their best players in the under-17 age group contest.
"It's a viable goal for them to pursue their interest in pétanque and travel to other countries to meet other kids from around the world," Porto said. "At the moment, we don't have any Michael Jordans or Alex Rodriguezes to be role models for them."
In the case of all four teammates, they learned the game from their parents, who have played in tournaments around the Bay Area.
Patrick Sammons, a 17-year-old Sonoma Valley High junior, said he recalls being as young as 5 when he accompanied his mother to Sonoma's Depot Park.
"I just started playing because it beat watching the parents play and it didn't take long to be as good as they were," Sammons said.
Sammons is being modest. He was one of four U.S. teens who represented the United States at the world junior championships two years ago in Montreal.
As the veteran on the squad, Sammons said his advice to teammates is: "Don't get intimidated; just play your game."
His goal, he said, is "just go there and get an upset or two."
To prepare for the championship event, the team, which also includes Cohen's 15-year-old sister, Hallie, and Wolfgang "Wolfie" Kurz, 16, gathers for regular late-Friday afternoon practice sessions with their coaches at Depot Park.
When a trio of girls strolling through the park Friday interrupted Sammons' concentration by calling out his name, coach Louis Toulon reined him in.
Sammons is the team's designated "shooter," or player with the task of knocking opponents' balls away from the target.
"You can say hello to the girls later," said Toulon, a veteran pétanque player from San Rafael who's helping the teens with strategy and tactics. "Time to be nasty to your opponents."
Alternative to wrestling
For Wolfie, a sophomore, pétanque offers competition that replaces wrestling, which ended when he broke his leg.
"My dad taught me how to play and I stuck to it," he said. "It involves strategies on how to throw it and how to point it at the target or block your opponent's shots."
The players have the advantage of always having available playing surface because the Valley of the Moon Pétanque Club has maintained Depot Park courts for two decades under an arrangement with the city of Sonoma.
The club was founded in the late 1980s by John Bouldt, who with his French wife had moved to Sonoma and loved the town but found it devoid of a place to play pétanque.
Through a sister city program with France, a fledgling pétanque group persuaded the city to allocate space in the park just down the street from the mission on Sonoma Plaza.
Institutional memory is hazy on how many times the club has sent its players to the world youth championship, but five or six times seems about right, club members said.
The Sonoma club has about 90 members, but club officials believe there are about twice as many active pétanque players in Sonoma County who toss their metal boules toward the wooden cochonnet, or jack ball, in courts at Juilliard Park or who are working to establish courts at Oak Hill Park in Petaluma.
"In France, you are more likely to walk around a corner and see a cafe, a bar and a pétanque court," said coach Porto. "Here, it's more of an all-terrain game that you'd see in parks, people's back yards and driveways."
Hallie, the youngest team member, said she's just fine with the American version.
"It doesn't have to be an old French guy's game," Hallie said. "For me, the social thing makes it a lot more fun."
You can reach Staff Writer Bleys W. Rose at 521-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.