STRIVE PREP- SMART student breaking barriers and setting world records in youth Bocce Volo

By: AJ Garza

Traveling across the globe with nothing but his coach and a duffle bag full of clothes and heavy copper balls, STRIVE Prep – SMART student, José Serna, went to compete in the 2021 Challenge International Denis Ravera tournament in Monaco. Not only was it his first time competing at a tournament of this size but he was the first ever, and only, United States Latino competing.

The United States is not, and has never, been known as a country that was a competitor in Bocce Volo. But with this aspiring teen, all of that changed. After a long week of preparation, and matches he finished in fourth place among hundreds of other youths competing from more than 50 different countries.  

Serna’s coach, Luciano Vergara, played Bocce Volo, which translates to flying boules, in his home country of Chile before moving to the States and beginning his career as an educator. It is a sport in which a metal, usually copper or bronze, ball is thrown over hand in hopes of getting it to hit a much smaller plastic ball or get as close as you can to it. Bocce Volo, popularized in Europe and commonly known as Bocce Ball in the U.S., is a highly technical sport requiring endurance, precision, grit, and dedication. Four characteristics Serna proves to have, time and time again. Vergara noticed these qualities early on in Serna from when he was just a seventh grade student at STRIVE Prep – Kepner, where Vergara works as an educational assistant. “He was always helping students and teachers and was the role model student. It was just an instinct to pick José to be our guinea pig with the sport,” Vergara said.

Bocce Volo was not a sport that was previously played by any STRIVE Prep or Denver Public Schools student at this international level. Serna was already a natural born athlete, being a key starter for the STRIVE Prep – SMART soccer team. It only made sense to start with him. The pair began to practice in the sandlot of the baseball field at the STRIVE Prep – Kepner campus which was not ideal, but they persevered to get Serna at the level he needed to be to compete internationally. 

Two weeks before flying to Monaco for the international competition in September 2021, they lost their practicing space and went those two weeks without preparation. When they arrived in Monaco, Serna had only three days to practice before stepping onto the full court and playing the biggest game of his life. 

“Practicing on the actual court was very difficult,” said Serna. “I had to make a lot of adjustments to throw on a flat surface, which we didn’t have at the field at STRIVE Prep – Kepner because we were essentially on a baseball field. There was a huge learning curve right out of the gate. I wasn’t as precise, I got nervous, and it took a whole day and a half to find some comfort on the actual court.”

Originally, Serna was only going to compete as a solo athlete in all of the events, but after one day of events, they quickly realized he was going to need a partner if he was going to make it through the rest of the competitions. That’s when Vergara discovered another solo athlete from France to compete with Serna, and the pair instantly clicked. They competed together for the rest of the tournament and it eased Serna’s stress and kept him from overworking himself. This ultimately ended up helping him reach the grand achievement of placing fourth as the first and only United States participant in the individual precision throw event. 

Impressed by his attitude, personality, and talent, the National Federation of Bocce Volo  has given Serna a lot of backing and they have donated, and will continue to donate, the necessary materials – such as specialized training mats and full professional Bocce Volo bronze ball sets – for STRIVE Prep schools to continue building athletes for the sport. Through his tremendous efforts, the World Federation and the Pan-American Federation have also expressed their piqued interest in the program at STRIVE Prep, and want to continue to support it with more training and competition materials. 

Serna has also received an invitation to one of the most prestigious youth competitions in Europe in 2022, the Youth World Cup. Due to the circumstances of COVID-19, the host country has yet to be decided. 

After returning from the competition on a high, Serna recalls his entire experience with the sport,“‘When I first heard about the sport I was confused. I didn’t know what it was but the fact that it was really different was what piqued my interest. Once I started training, I knew that this is the sport for me. I never would’ve thought I would represent the U.S. and it still doesn’t feel real.”  

Serna goes on to say these kind words about Coach Vergara, “He is not hard like other coaches. He is patient. He took the time to physically show me every single step and corrected me without being harsh or negative. The bond we had before he was my coach just  became stronger, and now feels more like a brotherhood instead of a coachhood.” 

“I’ve just always wanted him to feel safe, confident, and comfortable with everything, and now he’s family to me,” Vergara responded. 

Vergara continues to have high aspirations for the sport and its continuation at STRIVE Prep. He said he hopes and longs to soon have a permanent space to practice, properly prepare and bring this same opportunity to students who would have never thought they had a chance at competing in such a unique sport. He hopes to start with the students at STRIVE Prep – Kepner that feed into STRIVE Prep – SMART and give them a new source of motivation in not just the sport but in academics and life beyond the court. He wants to bring on more students to compete in the team events and not just the individuals. Serna on the other hand is just excited to get some teammates and have people to share this experience with. “I want to bring something new and I’m excited to get teammates. It was hard being alone,” Serna expressed.

“We just want to express our gratitude to our STRIVE Prep Athletic Director, Caleb Coats, for his continued support and believing in this effort, even though it seemed so out of place.” Vergara said.

Congratulations to José Serna and Luciano Vergara on this great fleet of accomplishments, from placing fourth at their first official tournament, to being invited to compete in the Youth World Cup next year. Good luck and fly high!