WILDWOOD - William Portalatin and Luis Contreras played marbles Monday on the same concrete rings the nation's marbles champions have played on for decades.
There were no cheering crowds (save a few curious passers-by) and no waiting crowns or golden thrones. But there was a sense that this was something special.
"We might go down in history," 12-year-old Luis said after winning his match against 11-year-old William.
The two are part of a team of eight boys and 15 girls in grades five to eight hoping to represent Wildwood and the Garden State at this year's tournament.
Wildwood has hosted the event for decades, but none of the national winners ever have been from New Jersey, let alone Wildwood.
Luis, William and their teammates, students at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School and Wildwood Middle School, hope to change that.
Their coach, Betty Harshaw, hopes so, too. Harshaw is a physical education teacher at the high school and a longtime Wildwood resident who played in the tournament representing the Greater Philadelphia area when she was 9 years old.
Back then, she was Betty Delgado, and in 1968 she came to Wildwood for the first time to play marbles at Ringer Stadium, the concrete rings that sit permanently on the beach at Wildwood Avenue.
"I was a terrified 9-year-old," Harshaw said as the boys prepared to play.
Since February, she has been working with children in the Wildwood School District's after-school program developing the skills they need to play here. Students in grades five to eight take part in the program.
"They live here. They should be involved," said Wildwood Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Josepha Penrose as she visited the beachfront rings. "I think a lot of us passed these structures and didn't know what they were."
Harshaw, helped by Jerry Sieber - whom she described as her marbles consultant - has since brought the team to Ringer Stadium on several occasions. Sieber once coached marble teams from the Cape May County Special Services School District, but he is now retired. They last played in the tournament in 2001.
Passer-by Richie Kerns and his father, George, stopped and watched from the Boardwalk as the boys played Monday.
"It's great. I think it's a good idea," Kerns said, recalling the days when he played marbles as a boy in Wildwood. "It's a good game. A good sport."
On Tuesday, Griselda Bautista and Isabella Henney, both 11, said they enjoyed playing in the school's tournament.
"A lot of people are excited about it," Isabella said as she took a break between games.
Griselda had never played before the after-school program, but soon got the hang of it.
"I want to make my parents proud," she said.
Once the school tournament is complete next week, Harshaw will know which boy and girl will go on to represent the school at the national tournament the week of June 17.
William said he had played before in Puerto Rico, but when the idea of a Wildwood team first surfaced he wasn't interested.
"I didn't want to join at first," he said with a smile. "But then I started to like it."
Luis said he practices at home and at school in his free time and he enjoys the strategy involved in playing.
"We could have the first Wildwood winner," he said.
Contact Trudi Gilfillian:
The 90th annual National Marbles Tournament, first held in 1922, will be held June 17 to 20 at Ringer Stadium, Wildwood Avenue and the Boardwalk, in Wildwood. The marble shooters, known as mibsters, will compete for national honors, college scholarships and prizes. The mibsters will play more than 1,200 games over the four-day tournament.