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Marbles team on a roll

June 20, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

MIDDLETOWN, Md. - Marbles may be an intensely individual sport, but a group of local knucklers has proven that a team effort is hard to beat.

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For the past 17 years, teams coached by Jeff Kimmell of Frederick, Md., have dominated the national championship held in Wildwood, N.J.

Kimmell, a former national champion himself, has coached seven champions and six runners up.

At this year's tournament, opening today, the local team will boast two of the five best players in the country, Kimmell said.

Vaughn Sheroda of Frederick, Md., and Doug Watson of Greencastle, Pa., both stand a good chance of winning, Kimmell said.

But any of the other seven players from the area also have a shot at the title, which carries a $2,000 scholarship, he said.

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Is there something in the water that makes Middletown the marbles capital of the world?

Or, does the team support and the friendships it fosters make this group of kids special?

During the game, players depend on no one but themselves.

They crouch down in the 10-foot concrete circle, take aim with their shooter marble, and fire away at a cross formation of smaller blue marbles.

They keep shooting until they miss or their shooter leaves the ring.

But during practice last week, it was hard to tell they would soon be competing against each other.

Tim Ratliff, 12, of Smithsburg, reminded the other veterans about the boardwalk tram cars in Wildwood, which bark an annoying "please watch the tram car" warning to pedestrians.

Then someone started singing the name of "A" player Vaughn Sheroda to the tune of The Knack's "My Sharona."

Sheroda, 14, just rolled his eyes. It wasn't the first time he heard that joke.

Clayton Myers, 13, of Frederick, Md., joined the team five years ago and has stuck with it except for a one-year break.

"I didn't think I had a future in it," he said with a wry smile.

He came back, he said, "for the social life."

Practices, held nearly every day when the tournament gets close, offer kids a chance to meet others with the same interests.

Although the team is dominated by boys, there are several girls who fare just as well as the guys in competition.

The team members support each other both in and out of the ring.

Tim's mother, Tina Ratliff, died three weeks ago at age 50 from congestive heart failure.

The team dedicated their tournament to her memory.

"They were really there for us," said Tim's father, Jerry Ratliff.

Practicing for the tournament has been a good distraction for Tim in such a difficult time, Jerry Ratliff said.

Tim first learned to shoot marbles for a Boy Scout project. He joined the team after he saw a newspaper advertisement Kimmell had placed.

Jerry Ratliff said he played marbles as a kid, but it was nothing like the competitive game his son plays.

"This is too professional for me," he said.

Tim said many of his friends at Smithsburg Middle School don't even know how the game of marbles is played.

Kimmell teaches a textbook technique, but said he has to modify it for every player.

"Every kid has a unique shot. They all hold the marble just slightly different," he said.

Tim, who has been playing for three years, improved dramatically this year when his hand grew large enough to perfect the technique of spinning the marble back so it doesn't leave the ring.

Doug Watson, 14, said he taught himself how to shoot a marble, but he's gotten better since working with Kimmell.

He now has his own marbles ring in his garage.

"It's a good team," he said.

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