County crowns latest in long line of champs

Most people lose their marbles. These kids win them.

Sixteen youngsters competed in the finals of the Allegheny County Marbles Tournament, which took place Saturday at the Allegheny County Courthouse. The top two boys and girls will head to the National Marbles Tournament in Wildwood, N.J., later this month.

Eli Murphy, 11, of Squirrel Hill and Kelsey Baran, 14, of McCandless were crowned king and queen of the local tournament. Runners-up Ava Miller, 7, and Bobby Narr, 11, both of Lawrenceville, will join them in New Jersey.

Allegheny County residents regularly dominate the national competition. Since it began, in 1922, almost one quarter of the tournament's more than 150 champions have hailed from the county, including 10 since 2004. Clairton resident Joe Medvicovich was the first locally bred national champion in 1927, according to the tournament's website.

"You've got more champions from Allegheny County than from any other county in America," said Anne Madarasz, director of the Western Pennsylvania Sports Museum, which has a section devoted to the game's local history.

Marbles' popularity has declined since its peak in the 1940s and '50s, Ms. Madarasz said, when "you had kids playing it just like they were trading baseball cards." While the game is conducive to urban spaces, the prevalence of glass makers in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia also contributed to its regional popularity.

In the last five decades, an active marbles community has been maintained by three generations of one family.

"My grandfather ran the marbles program for the city parks in the '60s and '70s," said Ed Ricci of Shaler, who runs local marbles activities with his wife, Maureen. When the city dropped funding and the county started backing the program in 1975, Mr. Ricci's mother took over the entity. Mr. Ricci hopes his daughters, both of them marble-shooters and one the 2008 national champion, will eventually take the reins.

Mibsters age out of the game when they turn 14 and cannot repeat as national champions. Given the high turnover, the county continues its successful track record with free events at malls, schools, parks and elsewhere. It also helps that former players often stay on as coaches to nurture future talent, Ms. Madarasz said.

In addition to funding local events, the county pays for the king, queen and runners-up to attend the national tournament. And when county budgets go to the chopping block, funding for marbles rolls on.

"We take marbles seriously. We're a powerhouse because we've been doing this for years," said Andy Baechle, director of the Allegheny County parks department.

"I think it only reflects positively on the community, and it's not something you have to invest a lot of dollars in," Ms. Madarasz said.

Winners of smaller events qualified for the preliminary tournaments on Thursday and Friday. Mr. Ricci estimated that 110 players competed Thursday. Former champions and those too old to play were in attendance Saturday as coaches or judges.

At stake in the national tournament are a college scholarship and other prizes, said Dawn Narr, Bobby's mother. The mibsters and their families get to know each other over repeat visits to the event.

"When you get down there, it's like a big family reunion," Ms. Narr said.

Ms. Narr's three children have attended the nationals, and her daughter, Bailey, won in 2011. Her extended family has "eight to 10" marbles-shooters, most of them from Lawrenceville.

"Lawrenceville is very, very well known for marbles, a lot of champs out of there," she said, noting the two rings at St. Mary's Lyceum. South Side is another marbles hub, said Ms. Madarasz of the Sports Museum.

On Monday, the mibsters will begin to practice under the Bloomfield Bridge on a ring made of concrete that replicates the ones in New Jersey.

Marbles has various draws for competitors. Ava, who comes from a family of marble collectors, started playing it only a few months before her second-place finish Saturday. She enjoys the marbles' different colors, the way they bounce and the game's rules, she said. Perhaps she learns by osmosis, too; two former national champions babysit her, said her mother, Beth.

The game seems to build skills besides marble-shooting.

"They have to be determined. They have to have the concentration," Ms. Narr said. "They have to want to do it -- that's the most important thing."

Elizabeth Bloom: or 412-263-1750. Twitter: @BloomPG.

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