Masked men hefted coolers from car trunks and called insulting greetings across the parking lot the way guys do. 

With rosters finalized and last-minute calls made to missing teammates, the hollow thud of a heavy ball against a wooden rail Thursday evening at the foot of White Street offered a strangely reassuring sound that foretold a return to normalcy — eventually.

Bocce is back. And in Key West, that’s a big deal.

For all of my 23 years in Key West, I’ve driven past the bocce courts at least two evenings a week, glancing always at the collection of people either rolling a heavy ball down a packed dirt court, or or watching someone else do it. They hunch over in their own unique stance. They hold the ball with one or both hands and send it rolling down the 91-foot court, often contorting their body in a futile attempt to will the ball in a certain direction. Cheers erupt. Adult beverages are shared and the games continue, with each team playing three matches a night.

Bocce player Neil Curran leans wildly to his right in a futile attempt to guide his ball. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

I knew bocce was big in Key West, but I hadn’t known how welcoming and decidedly unintimidating its players would be toward the uninitiated.

They were the “cool kids,” I had thought for two decades, more than a little daunted by the long-time players, the camaraderie and their bocce expertise. Then I hung around a bit on Thursday night and instant amended my assessment.

“Oh God, you were intimidated by THIS?” laughed Neil Curran, whose Smokin’ Mad Dashers team “is almost always in last place.”

“Bocce is crazy social and super friendly. Let’s be honest, it’s a bunch of degenerates. Look at us,” Curran said.

And I did. Then I looked at the league’s website. How could any organization with team names like The Rolling Stoners, Mission Imbocceball, Higher Primates and Deboccery be anything but pretty damn fun? 

The Southernmost Bocce League, which has been around for more than 25 years and numbers about 500 members, resumed play this week after nearly a year’s hiatus due to COVID.

Juan Menendez rolls a bocce ball down the court in Key West Thursday evening during the league’s first week of play in nearly a year. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

“Finally, something to do again on Thursday night,” said Kaitlin O’Connell, a Key West teacher who is also a member of the Smokin’ Mad Dashers and plays every Thursday evening. “For me it’s a sort of stress relief. I love the sense of community here and everyone is really welcoming and helpful.”

“The league uses the bocce courts Monday through Thursday evenings. Everything bocce starts at 6:30,” said league vice president Shane Briening, who’s been playing for about 14 years on the Mission Imbocceball team. “Each team has a designated night that they’ll always play. Your night is your night and people take pride in ‘their’ night. Each team has maybe six to eight players, but only four play at a time, with two members from each team standing on opposite ends of the court.”

“The city agreed to let us resume play as long as we follow the COVID guidelines,” said league president Garth Holtkamp, who told all players on Thursday evening that masks are a must and the league must leave an empty court between each game to allow for social distancing. “We can’t screw this up.”

Holtkamp added that the Southernmost Bocce League is one of the city’s largest nonprofits, and each year the league donates money to local charities.

Though COVID continues, and restrictions remain in place, bocce has gotten the ball rolling once again. Welcome back, cool kids.

Rick Thompson, right, has been playing bocce in Key West for more than 20 years. MANDY MILES/Keys Weekly

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Mandy Miles drops stuff, breaks things and falls down more than any adult should. An award-winning writer, reporter and columnist, she's been stringing words together in Key West since 1998. "Local news is crucial," she says. "It informs and connects a community. It prompts conversation. It gets people involved, holds people accountable. The Keys Weekly takes its responsibility seriously. Our owners are raising families in Key West & Marathon. Our writers live in the communities we cover - Key West, Marathon & the Upper Keys. We respect our readers. We question our leaders. We believe in the Florida Keys community. And we like to have a good time." Mandy's married to a saintly — and handy — fishing captain, and can't imagine living anywhere else.