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'Best day in May': Linear bocce rules in alleys on Indianapolis north-side

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Posted at 11:15 PM, May 14, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-16 13:17:51-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Linear bocce is a fast-growing sport but you've probably never heard of it.

The game is a spin on bocce ball and recently held its 10th annual North American Championship in alleys in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood on Indianapolis's north side.

"Instead of dully going back and forth, back and forth like shuffle board, you go only forth," said Will Higgins, founder and commissioner of the American Association of Linear Bocce. "We just go north and we keep going until the time is up."

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Commissioner Will Higgins presents the 2024 North American Linear Bocce Championship trophy to winner Dave Hoegberg.

Higgins, a former reporter for the Indianapolis Star, invented the game a decade ago. The inaugural 2014 championships fielded 22 players. Saturday's field boasted about 90 players, Higgins said.

"Which means mathematically... linear bocce is the fastest growing sport in North America," Higgins said. "So pickle ball can just suck it."

Hand-eye coordination and precision bowling skills help, but in this game it's best to be lucky.

The alleys provide an uneven, unforgiving playing surface littered with rocks, weeds and detritus. It just adds to the fun and frustration of linear bocce, players say.

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Linear bocce players.

That might be why most players tow a supply wagon filled with extra bocce balls, snacks and adult beverages.

Jessica Phillips sipped an Aperol spritz as she tossed bocce balls in an alley north of 42nd Street and west of College Avenue.

"It's like the best day in May. The weather's awesome," Phillips said. "It's a fun time."

Everyone in Phillip's foursome, and everyone else in the tournament, wore some kind of scarf or tie.

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Brian Phillips lines up a shot during the 2024 North American Linear Bocce Championships held in alleys on the north side of Indianapolis on May 11, 2024.

"We gotta be fancy in an alley, that's why we have neck wear on," said Brian Phillips, Jessica's husband.

One of the game's hard and fast etiquette rules is that players must wear something around their necks.

"We're basically tramping through people's backyards and if we look kind of classy, they're less likely to call the police," said Higgins, sporting a monogrammed cream-colored ascot that once belonged to his father.

Linear bocce is a timed event that ends after 90 minutes of play. The top scorers from each foursome gather for a playoff round in an alley near 46th Street. The playoff winner is named tournament champion.

The 2024 crown went to Dave Hoegberg, who proudly hoisted the golden bocce ball trophy.

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Winner Dave Hoegberg hoists the 2024 North American Linear Bocce Championship trophy moments after being crowned champ on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

"I want to thank my whole team and especially my mental coach and my psychiatrist," Hoegberg said.

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Commissioner Will Higgins wears white gloves and holds the 2024 North American Linear Bocce Championship trophy, sanctioned by the American Association of Linear Bocce.

The tournament raised $2,400, which Higgins said was donated to the owners of the historic Red Key Tavern. Higgins said the tavern has fallen on hard times after owner Dollie Settle died in January and her husband Jim fell ill. Their daughter Leslie now runs the Red Key, Higgins said.

"These are hard times and a little bit of money like what we have, a couple of grand, would go a long way to keeping a institution like that going," Higgins said.

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The hard, uneven alley-way playing surface for linear bocce takes a toll on the balls. This pallino, the white ball used as a marker and target in the game, was brand new until a chunk cracked off after the first throw.

Contact WRTV reporter Vic Ryckaert at victor.ryckaert@wrtv.com or on X/Twitter: @vicryc.