Throughout Timber Pines, Annie Faliero is known as the Bocce Queen. She might rightly be dubbed the Bocce Queen Mum. She's 93.
Faliero doesn't weigh a lot more than 93 pounds — diminutive as a bird, but a savvy old bird. She captains the Easy, Easy bocce team, which will roll for the Timber Pines championship Monday and Tuesday at what's known among 10 community teams as their Super Bowl.
They've been pursuing the honor since the bocce season opened in October. Easy, Easy eliminated its competitor in the semifinals two weeks ago, by a score of 12-4, after winning its quarterfinal match 12-2.
Faliero says she picked up the game, "oh, I don't know, 15 to 20 years ago."
Her pursuit came on the heels of winning trophies in traditional indoor lane bowling in her native Clarence, N.Y., near Buffalo. She bowled with a 16-pound ball.
"I think that's what ruined my shoulders," she said, noting recent pain-alleviating cortisone shots. And in lane bowling, "I had such a hard slide." For that, she underwent two knee replacements.
Sixteen-pound-ball bowling was out of the question when she and her late husband moved to Hernando County 24 years ago. After watching residents play bocce in Timber Pines, Faliero said, "I just wanted to get into anything athletic."
She took up the Italian version of lawn bowling, as well as golf, but had to give up the latter just over a year ago because of physical constraints.
"Of course, Mr. Arthritis is no friend of mine," she pointed out.
Yet, she perseveres. Of bocce league play, she noted: "Every Thursday, you know you've got a place to go."
"You meet so many wonderful people — the comradeship, the friendship," she said of her devotion to the game.
Supporting that claim, in a practice round Thursday, team member Sandy Rodgers on the sideline cheered, "Dead-eye Dan!"
Faliero had tossed out the pallino, the target ball, slightly larger than a golf ball. Then she effortlessly and perfectly bowled her bocce ball, a sphere of about 3 pounds, somewhat larger than a softball, which kissed the pallino. The throw was a point in the making if a competitor didn't get closer to the target or knock aside her bocce.
Faliero says bocce is more a game of strategy than stamina or strength.
"All challenges are where the pallino is. You shouldn't go past it. It's better to stay in front of it so you can block the opponent's ball. Sometimes they measure it by a hair."
Indeed, as teammate Rodgers, 67, cast a bowl, a volunteer referee called out: "By a whisker."
Captain Faliero watched without response as Rodgers edged her out. It's what she expects of her team members.
"Playing with her, you better be on your toes," said team member Herb Rodgers, 71, husband of Sandy. He's pleased when an opposing player steps on the court, saying, "Oh, no, Annie again."
Sandy Rodgers concurred.
"She is deadly in her aim," she said, "and other teams quake when she takes aim at the pallino."
Said teammate Dave Walsh, 67 and "the baby" of the quartet: "Playing with (Faliero) is a wish come true. She's an inspiration to all of us."
The men maintain Faliero doesn't so much coach as advise. She doesn't criticize their errant bowls, but suggests how to improve. And she doesn't care so much whether the team wins or loses, but that team members try their best.
Faliero has readied herself for this week's tournament finals. Having struggled with several health issues over the winter that she has now seemingly overcome, last week she bowed to the need for medication for her shoulders. The joints are bone against bone, she said. She accepted painful cortisone injections. A referee joshed that he might disqualify her for being "on drugs."
Faliero concedes she's got a reputation.
"Annie's still the champ, but …," she drifts off, then muses: "I used to be."
Contemplating the upcoming finals, she takes a deep breath and adds: "I'm stubborn."
As she talks courtside, Faliero lets a teammate know she's paying attention as he throws the bocce during practice.
"I'm watching," she calls out.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.