You’ll be forgiven, for now, if you’ve never heard of a sport called Pétanque. A cousin of bocce ball, the French sport of Pétanque is played all over the world but it hasn’t really had a breakthrough in the continental U.S.
New Suffolk resident Michelle Roussan is on a mission to change all that, and she’s inducted a tribe of devotees who make their way to the New Suffolk ball field, every day that weather permits, to spend an afternoon attempting to best their neighbors in a sport that’s every bit about technique and concentration.
The gang was out in force on a recent balmy Sunday, wearing their New Suffolk United Pétanque Club t-shirts and ready for some serious competition.
School Board member Joe Polashock had raked the court out nicely for the burgeoning group, who divided up into three groups. Today, with so many people here, they’d be playing the width of the court instead of the length of the court in order to fit in three games.
It proved a challenging switch-up, with players modifying their throws and reacquainting themselves with the dips in the court with each throw.
The basics of Pétanque are fairly straightforward. First, you need your own set of hollow steel Pétanque balls. If you’re new to the game, chances are a longtime participant will loan you some balls. Then, the teams set a starting point by placing a plastic ring that looks like a small hula hoop at the edge of the court. This is where you throw from.
The first player throws a small wooden ball called a cochonnet (which literally means ‘piglet’) out onto the court, and then everyone takes their turn trying to roll their balls closest to the cochonnet.
Much commentary then ensues. With new players present, there are tips on throwing your balls (underhanded, with a little float in the release), on watching for signs of imperfections in the court that could send the ball rolling to the outer boundaries, on how to knock other peoples’ balls away from the cochonnet.
If two players end a round seemingly equidistant from the cochonnet, the measuring tapes come out. There may be arguments. Cursing is permitted, but only if you curse in French.
The group began playing together down near the New Suffolk Waterfront in the summer of 2015, and it became such a popular pastime that they started their own club and began looking for space for a permanent Pétanque court later that year.
What better place, they thought, than at the New Suffolk School-owned ball field in the center of this tiny community?
The New Suffolk School Board and the New Suffolk Enrichment Fund gave them permission to build the court, after which the group got to work on fundraising and enlisting the help of a landscaper to build the court in three days.
The court is surfaced in fine gravel and lovingly raked by the players before each afternoon’s matches.
The Pétanque Club now has 40 members in all, ranging from 8 to 80 years of age, and welcomes anyone to join. Coaching will be provided to new players.
“It’s a fun way to spend time with friends,” said Neb Brashich as the first match got off the ground. “The camaraderie built up over the first year.”
Joanne Yacko was on a roll, literally. She’d spent the day soaking in the bay and painting and her game was on. She’d only been playing for a year, but she found good teachers at the Pétanque Club and seemed to be cultivating a finely tuned playing style.
“It’s absolutely free, and they welcome anyone in the community,” said Ms. Yacko.
“In France, they play everywhere. They don’t need courts. Wherever there’s a patch of dirt, there’s a game,” said Ms. Roussan. “When I go to France, I go straight to the Pétanque Club. I’m making friends in India and Belgium. Pétanque will be played in the Olympics in Paris in 2024 and the French are preparing a big team.”
The sport is also taking off in New York, with games every day in Bryant Park. There’s an American tournament on Amelia Island in Florida each year. On a brief break between matches, club members daydreamed about where Pétanque could take them.
“We can just rent a plane and go in style,” said Mr. Brashich.
Ms. Yacko said she lives on Fred Street, a neighborhood outside of the downtown grid of New Suffolk that she and her neighbors jokingly call New Suffolk Heights. She didn’t really get to know her neighbors around town until she began playing Pétanque.
Now, she daydreams, she could even go to Paris on a Pétanque exchange, find a place to stay, and meet new friends.
Anyone is welcome to join the New Suffolk United Pétanque Club. For more information, visit www.newsuffolkunited.org.