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Winning as a family

Pleasanton's Bernardi team reflects on taking the gold at national bocce tournament
From left: Joey, Navina and Dario Bernardi pose with their first place gold medals they won at the Highwood Bocce Club’s 2023 United States Bocce Federation National Championships in Chicago during the June 18 weekend.

For most people, playing bocce can be a relaxing and fun game for family gatherings or on a weekend at places like Da Boccery in Livermore.

But for the Bernardi family, bocce can be a serious sport with serious awards.

So when the Pleasanton-based team -- made up of Dario, Joey and Navina Bernardi, along with their longtime family friend Paolo Pro -- brought home first place in the Highwood Bocce Club's 2023 United States Bocce Federation National Championships in Chicago, they didn't just feel the joy from winning; they felt the joy of being able to do it as a family.

"I know it's been about a month, but I still can't believe we won," Dario said regarding their win during the June 18 weekend. Dario is the father of Navina and Joey.

A longtime Pleasanton resident, Dario spent most of his life growing up and going to school in San Jose. He said that his family really got into bocce thanks to his parents, his wife and her parents, who were all born in Italy.

"A lot of Italian people play bocce," Dario said.

But he said the bocce playing didn't start right away. The first time he said they really started playing bocce as a family was during one Thanksgiving at Dario's late father's house in San Jose.

Dario and his son Joey would walk out to their backyard along with Dario's father and his father-in-law for a couple of games.

"When my dad was alive, we would just have so much fun out there," Dario said.

But when the bocce-and-restaurant venue in Livermore first opened up close to their home in Pleasanton (originally operating as Campo di Bocce; now Da Boccery), that's when Dario said his family really started to play with a more serious tone.

He said what was nice about discovering bocce around the same time was that as his kids picked up the game and began playing really well, he also started getting better right alongside them.

Then, when the competitiveness took over, they started looking at what it took to play at higher levels and began joining local tournaments.

Joey, who was raised in Pleasanton but now lives in San Jose, said that he first got into bocce around 2004 after he suffered an ACL injury during a rugby game in high school. After being told by his doctor that he couldn't play rugby anymore, Joey turned to bocce and started playing at the then-new Campo di Bocce in Livermore.

Since then, he went on to become the U.S. under-21 champion in 2010. Now he mostly plays at the Campo di Bocce location in Los Gatos, which he called his home club.

Navina, who was the only one born in Pleasanton, also has her own accolades after earning fourth place in the 2015 bocce world championships in Italy.

But while Joey and Navina said that having their own individual accolades and being able to travel the world to play the sport they love has been great, winning the national title this year with their family was the most meaningful experience in their bocce career.

"We kind of took a little break from bocce because of life, school and work," Navina said. "To come back and play as a family and to be lucky enough to win, it was really special."

Dario Bernardi, father of Joey and Navina, throws a bocce ball for the first time at the courts at Centennial Park. Photo by Christian Trujano

Even though he knew they all had the right experience to win, Dario said it still felt surreal receiving that gold medal.

He said one thing he felt had helped was that he, his two kids and Pro -- who joined their gold-winning team as the fourth player -- all peaked at the right time in terms of their performance and bocce playing ability.

They all also said that what made it a particularly memorable time in Chicago wasn't just the fact that they won, but the tournament itself was well run, the facility was top notch and the competition was fierce while also being respectable and friendly.

Dario added that out of the 84 other players from almost 10 different states across the country, the local team out of Chicago was definitely the toughest they had to face.

"We were lucky that we beat them," Dario said. "Nobody was expecting us to beat them. That kind of kind of sent a little shockwave through the bocce club."

Joey added to that point, saying that despite all of their individual accomplishments in the bocce world, this win felt uniquely special.

"I know these two knuckleheads, and I know how good they can play and so for me ... I was just so happy that we were able to perform at the right time at peak effort," Dario said. "It's hard, especially on away courts, so I'm just so proud of them. It is a team game and we really played like a team."

"Bocce is a little bit like golf," Navina explained. "Those two days we went on the courts and we were hitting the balls right down the fairway. Our misses were good -- we were just hot at the right time."

"But a couple of days before I played in a different tournament and I couldn't do anything right," she added, followed by a "ditto" from her dad.

And it's during those tough times that the Bernardis made sure to communicate, stick together and realize that they all had each other's backs.

"There's a trust factor when you're on the court with people that you've played with for your entire bocce career," Joey said. "I can tell what Navina is thinking right away, she can tell what dad's thinking."

"You don't fear making a mistake, because dad's got my back and Navina's got his back," he added. "Paulo had my back the entire first day for sure, so you're able to play a little bit freely. I think that was a big aspect of it."

Joey said that even though they did breeze through most of the competition -- they pretty much shut out both teams in the semifinals and finals -- that confidence in his family having his back still helped during the few tough moments that they faced.

"We look at the scores and it makes it sound like it was easy," Dario said. "These are some of the top players in the U.S. ... (but) we put so much pressure on them every ball and we were able to just kind of finish. It was just amazing."

Navina Bernardi tests out the bocce courts located at Centennial Park, next to the Pleasanton Senior Center. Photo by Christian Trujano

He said after the final game was over, one of his favorite memories was seeing his wife's big smile.

Another favorite moment was when Dario found out that his mother, who still lives in her home in San Jose and saw their performance via livestream, cheered them on while they played in the national championship. Well, she didn't necessarily cheer as much as she screamed at the livestream when any one of the Bernardis made a poor shot.

"She's 89 years old and she knows bocce," Dario said. "She has a caretaker, she's watching TV, we get home and we have a big smile on our face and (her caretaker) goes 'You know Dario your mother was yelling at you when you made a bad shot' ... I'm trying not to laugh but I looked at her ... and she's like, well, you know, you missed a couple of shots."

Pleasanton Mayor Karla Brown also wants to show the Bernardi family how proud their city is of their win, which is why she said that she is working with city staff on a written commendation and presentation for the Pleasanton champions at a future council meeting.

"This is a proud moment for Pleasanton as we celebrate the Bernardi family's national bocce ball championship! On behalf of the city of Pleasanton, congratulations to the gold medal winners," Brown said.

Now that the tournament is over, Dario said that although there is always next year's tournament to look forward to -- and other smaller ones this year -- he and his family are just excited to get back to their local leagues and play with friends.

And while Joey said that maybe it's time to try and win the gold at a global tournament, his dad said for now, having a national accolade as a family is enough.

"I just say thank you. Thank you to Paulo for playing with us and to my family for sticking together," Dario said. "This is the top of the heap for me, this medal. I don't know when this feeling is gonna go away and I don't care. I hope it never leaves me."


About the Author: Christian Trujano

Christian Trujano, a Bay Area native and San Jose State alum, joined Embarcadero Media in May 2022 following his graduation. He is an award-winning student journalist who has covered stories in San Jose ranging from crime to higher education.
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