The Clack of the Croquet Titans

[Reprint of a story originally published April 25, 2014]

If you’re a college where students study a “great books” curriculum, it’s good to rock a sport. And it’s really good to rock it against the U.S. Naval Academy. And if you’re the Naval Academy, it’s good to knock the hipsters down a peg or two on their own turf. These are disputes born out two colleges sharing the same small town and going to the same bars. They’ve got to be settled on the field.

The field of croquet.

*****
The Background

Every Spring, St John’s College in Annapolis challenges the U.S. Naval Academy to a croquet match called The Annapolis Cup. This competition has been going on since 1982. Only that much is agreed to.

Croquet watchers stroll St. John's campus
St. John’s College campus in Annapolis

According to the official St. John’s press release, it began when the Academy commandant was speaking with St. John’s freshman, Kevin Heyburn, and said the Midshipmen could beat the Johnnies in any sport. Heyburn suggested croquet.

A St. John’s student at a practice said he’d heard it started in a bar by students from the two institutions challenging each other.

But one of the original players attending the 2014 match gives the story this way: freshman Kevin Heyburn wanted to join the school newspaper. However, the newspaper had all the staff it needed and certainly had no spots for a late freshman. Heyburn declared he’d be the croquet correspondent. He got the job. But he had no matches to cover. So, he marched across the street to the Naval Academy and delivered a challenge.

At the time, the nation was still getting over the the Vietnam War. St. John’s students had long hair and ‘tudes. Naval Academy students weren’t going to war anymore, but the tensions still existed worldwide and Middies were being trained for the real thing. Officials on both sides were trying to reduce tensions between students by holding cross-seminars and other events.

Somehow the persistent Heyburn worked his way through the academy offices to someone important and, seeing an opportunity for students to intermingle in a fun way, the Naval Academy commandant accepted. Heyburn came back to St. John’s saying Middies never refuse a challenge.

But St. John’s didn’t really have a croquet team. They had Johnnies who would cut class in the spring and play croquet on the lawn with a backyard set somebody had left behind in the library. They figured that if they turn it into a club, they could get school sponsorship, which meant money allocated for one annual party per club. It was a way to buy beer. They still didn’t have enough people for the Navy match, on either side, so they offered free beer for players. That worked.

Now there are try-outs. St. John’s still uses the beer technique. But the Academy has formalized it to require its 28th company to field a team every year. But frankly, over the years, being ‘one of those croquet guys’ (both men and women) has turned wickedly cool. It’s not a hard sell.

*****
The Teams

When it comes to sports, the Naval Academy has nationally televised football, as well as baseball, women’s golf, men’s track and women’s tennis. The Navy-Army football game is so popular, they go to a professional league stadium.

St. John’s has four intercollegiate sports: croquet, fencing, sailing and crew (long narrow rowboats). The Annapolis Cup croquet match draws an estimated annual attendance of 3,000. People fly in from around the country to attend. This is about as big as it gets for a college of 500 students.

At the Annapolis Cup, the team leaders are called Imperial Wickets — names made up years ago for this tournament. Both are picked by the previous Imperial Wickets and neither is told why. They hold the job until they pick someone else to replace them.

Sam & Ryan, Imperial Wickets of 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
2014 Imperial Wickets: Ryan (left) & Sam (right)

St. John’s is led by Sam Collins, a junior from Fallington, Pennsylvania, an historic village in the hills east of Philadelphia. His teammates refer to him as “Tornado” Collins. Sam doesn’t have a major; no one at St. John’s does. They go to discussions rather than classes. Johnnies study the works of Homer, Plato, Nietzsche, and so on. He’ll graduate with a liberal arts degree. A student watching Sam practice explained croquet is really “just Newtonian physics.” That’s how they roll at St. Johns.

Flip the sciences over and you come up with the Naval Academy, led by Midshipmen First Class Ryan Lluy, from Fairfax, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC. Ryan will graduate with a degree in oceanic engineering. He was a baseball star in high school, playing infield, with a very respectable batting average of .271 and on base percentage of .343. His baseball team was ranked fourth in the state.

Sam has a “yeah, I got this” friendly grin and floppy dirty-blonde hair. He looks like Ashton Kutcher with a inner Steve McQueen waiting to come out. Ryan is all-American good looking in the style of a young Tom Cruise, with dark hair, a modest smile and inner-confidence. Both want to, politely, demolish the other team.

When asked why they wanted to play collegiate croquet — I mean, C’mon, it’s a wimpy sport, right? — Sam and Ryan had similar stories: both came to an Annapolis Cup match when choosing colleges and decided they simply wanted to be a part of it; this is a clash of the titans with full college fanfare.

*****
The Warm Up

The match may have started as a joke, but now St. John’s and the Naval Academy field two of the best collegiate croquet teams in the country. Practice starts as soon as the snow melts. Navy practices four to five times a week; Johnnies, about twice a week formally.

Sam is rebuilding a team. He has only three returning players after last year’s graduation. Ryan has five returning players. Both have to train 12 members to play in teams of two per match. Johnnies have exactly 12 players. Navy has 18; the best 12 will play.

Backyard croquet is simple. Hit the balls through the wickets and get back to the stake. Competitive croquet is complicated. It’s been compared to chess. And it is, strategy-wise. But it also has the physics of billiards, only with rules that seem made-up on the fly in a man-cave. Click here if you want to see what I mean.

It takes physical skill and is played on a lawn, like golf. But you have to work as team, blocking and picking off the other team like basketball. It’s also equal parts skill (in hitting with the mallet) and strategy (in how they hit the balls).

“By this time, everyone on the team has the same shooting ability,” says Ryan. “It’s now up to strategy to win.”

Sam’s favorite play is the “three-ball break” using your ball, your teammate’s ball and one of the opposition’s balls to leapfrog your ball around the course and through the wickets. A single player can win the game doing that. It happened a few years ago on the second or third turn. “The other team has to screw up pretty badly to let that happen,” according to Sam.

They have several matches leading up to the Annapolis Cup tournament. One is against the Ginger Cove Croquet Team. Ginger Cove is a large retirement community in Annapolis; you go where the players are.

The Tuesday before the match, the Johnnies and Middies play each other in a warm-up match on the St. John’s quad, the same fields they’ll use on the next Saturday.

Johnnies come bounding out in white painters’ coveralls with “SJC Croquet” embroidered in red on the sleeves. It’s cool to be unzipped. Middies wear uniforms of khaki pants, navy-blue polo shirts. Everything is perfectly in place.

Johnnies have strategically placed beers at each wicket, with cases of cold, but not iced, cases of Miller High Life nearby for replacements. As the match continues, beers are offered to Middies and accepted.

Last year, the Johnnies won all five exhibition matches. “So we were very confident coming into Saturday,” says Sam. “We didn’t take our time, with our strategy, with our shots especially and we let them beat us.“ Middies won for the first time in eight years.

Good for Navy, right? “We now have (the) added pressure of being reigning champions this year,” says Ryan. “We gotta perform.” If Navy wins in 2014, it’d be the first back-to-back wins in the 32 years of the Annapolis Cup.

“I would like my legacy to not be the first (St. John’s Imperial Wicket) to lose two matches in a row,” says Sam.

The pressure is high on both leaders.

The Naval Academy is nine-times the size as St. John’s. They have athletes who go professional. “It’s frightening,” says Sam. “Not only is it a school of incredible athletes, it’s the U.S. military.”

But then, St. John’s doesn’t mind being underdogs; these are the smart kids from high schools and home schools across the country who ‘blend in’ at St. John’s. Johnnies are expected to become leaders of business and law. They have confidence.

*****
Game Day

Saturday, April 12, 2014, turns out to be one of those rare perfect Spring days. High in the upper 60s, sun is shining with an occasional puffy white cloud lazily breezing by. Cherry trees are in full bloom and the aged oaks surrounding the field are just starting to bud, but they’re big and still provide plenty of shade without leaves.

St. John’s quad is a wide expanse of green lawn, cut short. Historic brick buildings of varying architectural styles face the field on three of its four sides. The college was founded in 1696 and is one of the oldest colleges in the country. A brick wall lines the fourth side and across the street are large historic homes of brick or clapboard. A nearby church still rings bells at the quarter-hour.

Early morning of 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
St. John’s College quad on the morning of the croquet match

At 9am, Johnnies have already set up the wickets and are practicing. The vendors are in place, as are some of the rented party-tents. Some blankets are scattered around the three courts by students reserving spots.

Johnnies are in their painters coveralls. The uniform changes every year, and it’s kept a secret until just before the match starts. Until then, coveralls.

By 10:30am, beers are out and more space is being claimed on the lawn. The courts are set up near the historic Barr Buchanan (graduate) Center, named for the guys who came up with the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s. It’s also where the Naval Academy Trident Brass band is setting up. The other side of the quad is set aside for vendors and party tents reserved by various groups. New arrivals are sliding up their canopies and putting out the white linen table clothes and vases of flowers. One has potted palms.

Some have compared the party to the Great Gatsby, but it’s more like the high-end lawn parties in Virginia horse country. Women wear dresses and sun-hats while men wear summer dress-jackets and fedoras. Students wear their interpretation of that. There’s also steampunk and flapper outfits, while others wear Victorian like they walked out of Monet paintings.

Visitors surround the fields of the Annapolis Cup croquet match
An estimated 3,000 people attend the Annapolis Cup croquet match

Champagne, wine and beer are for sale at tents scattered around the quad. Five-dollars a ticket; one ticket for beer or wine, champagne is two tickets. Wine can also be purchased by the bottle for only three tickets ($15). At that price, bottles are the way to go and people everywhere are carrying bottles of white or red.

Walk around Annapolis and you’ll see “Go Navy, Beat Army” stickers at all the tourist shops. Today, the gift tent is selling unusually large “Beat Navy” buttons. They’re hugely popular. But this gift tent also sells bow-ties, wine totes, insulated grocery bags and ‘spirit-finger’ gloves with pom-pom’s at the end of each finger, in both St. John’s and Navy colors.

Live music starts at 11:30am, as the Navy band warms up. Middies take the field to begin their warm-up, wearing crisp white pants, white shoes, white long-sleeved sweaters with large lemon-yellow “N”s sewn on the front.

They look like a bunch of Ivy League “Biff”s. But Middies wear it with casual style, carrying their croquet mallets like tennis rackets just off the court; these guys are used to wearing dress-uniforms and are comfortable in U.S. Croquet Association “croquet whites.”

Meanwhile the Johnnies head into the “BBC” to change. In the past, they’ve played in tuxedoes, kilts, camo and Viking clothes.

The Navy band also leaves to change into official uniforms and things quiet down a bit. Time to head to the ticket tent and over to the beer and wine tents, and see who else is here. People stroll about, checking out the outfits.

At 12:30pm, a crowd start gathering by the BBC, where the opening ceremonies are to take place. College President Christopher Nelson begins, “Welcome to this glorious field where battles are won and (pause) battles are lost.” A huge cheer goes up. Everyone knows their side is going to win. The college president is joined by the Naval Academy admiral. They point out this is a competition between the Bachelor of Arts (St. John’s) and the Bachelor of Science (Naval Academy).

The BBC door opens. The crowd stops and turns to see the teams stream down the steps. Navy is first, moving in a casual march lead by Ryan. They probably don’t even realize they’re doing it. Mallets over their shoulders, looking every bit Ivy League. Each player is introduced.

U.S. Naval Academy 2014 croquet team enters
U.S. Naval Academy 2014 croquet team

Then, St. John’s bursts through the door in a cluster-romp; they bounce down the steps wearing… togas! Beige linen with a red stripe sewn over their shoulders and belted with hemp-rope. The uniform is topped with green, plastic-ivy crowns. Croquet players wave their mallets in the air like hammers and line up. Nobody is accidentally clocked on the head.

St. John's 2014 croquet players in togas
St. John’s croquet players in togas

After a proper dramatic pause, Sam comes out. He stands at the top of the step, arms in the air — a St. John’s patrician accepting the love of his people. Cheers erupt. This year’s uniform is a success.

2014 St. John's uniform at Annapolis Cup
Sam makes his appearance as Imperial Wicket

When the crowd calms down, followed by the presentation of colors, national anthem and college anthems, the teams take to their fields.

*****
The Match

Ryan and Sam face each other in the first match on the first field. Ryan’s teammate is Hunter Craig from Salt Lake City, Utah, majoring in systems engineering.

Sam is joined by Hector Mendoza, a senior at St. John’s Santa Fe (New Mexico) campus. Hector flew out to Maryland so he and Sam could play together one last time before Hector graduates, even though he had a thesis due on Monday. “He’s sort of a ringer,” said Sam later, “but a totally legal, allowed ringer.”

Sam, Hector, Hunter & Ryan at side of 2014 Annapolis Cup match
(left to right) Sam and Hector in togas, Hunter and Ryan in coquet whites, St. John’s caddy (far right)

Ryan takes the first shot and blocks the wicket with his blue ball. Ah, strategy. Hector comes in with a difficult shot, he’s got a ball blocking the wicket he needs to get through. The wickets are only slightly wider than the ball, about as much extra space as the edge of a dime. It’s a tight squeeze to get a single ball through.

Hector leaps his ball over the top of blue and through the wicket! Like a basketball player doing a pick-and-roll over the top and ending with a slam-dunk. But the turn is short-lived; he soon gives up the shot. Sam tries to do the same, but messes up.

Sam tries to jump his ball over the ball blocking the wicket
Sam tries to jump over the ball blocking the wicket

Hunter moves in with his black ball, whacks it through the first wicket giving himself another turn, and starts a run on the ball. He’s doing the Three Ball Break, playing off Ryan’s blue ball to keep moving. Once he “roquets” off a ball, he’s entitled to two more shots. Black knocks red into the corner and keeps moving.

He’s through the second wicket, then the third. Black bumps blue and leaps over it on the way to the middle wicket. Hunter starts using Sam’s yellow ball as he leapfrogs (roquets) down the field. Black lines up inches away from Wicket #4. It’s a straight shot through.

Black aims at the blue ball. If Hunter can hit it, he keeps going. He does. Hunter pauses for a strategy meet with Ryan. A decision is made. Hunter clacks off blue again and gets another shot. He turns toward Wicket #5.

Hunter hits ball at 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
Hunter jumps his ball into the air. He holds the mallet in proper croquet position.

When most of us play back-yard croquet, we swing the wicket like a golf club, turned sideways to the wicket, with the ball in front of us. Competitive (top level) croquet players stand facing where they want the ball to go and swing the wicket between their legs.

The hands look awkward, with one hand firmly gripping the top of the handle, thumb laying on top and palm facing in. The other hand is the guide; it grips gently with the palm facing out. A couple practice swings between the legs to line it up and judge the power needed; then, whack!

Hunter goes wide of Wicket #5. End of turn. But it was a glorious run at the beginning of the match.

Sam has to bring his yellow back from other end of the field where Hunter had worked it during his play. A big shot back and end of play.

Croquet nine-wicket map
Courtesy U.S. Croquet Association

Navy goes again. Ryan hits off red and knocks his blue back toward the second wicket. His ball was down by Wicket #5. He also has to return to go through the wickets in order. He goes fast and long past Wicket #2, but not through.

Yellow then comes back from the far corner where he’s been ricocheted. Sam gets through the first wicket. The game is on.

By this time, few are really paying attention. The sun is shining. The temperature is a comfortable 64 with a warm breeze. The Navy jazz band is playing on the other side of the sidewalk.

A bearded hipster holding a plastic cup of red wine leans over and asks, “Has the game started?” (Yes.)

“Really?” (The players are hitting balls on the field.)

“Who’s winning?” (Navy)

“Oh,” he says. Disappointed.

Another person in the crowd points to Sam in his toga and says in a slightly baffled tone, “That guy seems to be taking it pretty seriously.”

Navy and St. John’s are now working two opposite ends of the field. Navy is a couple wickets away from the other end. St. John’s is having a rough start, stuck at Wicket #3.

Ryan goes through the last wicket, taps black and gets another turn. He’s less than a foot away from the first stake. He focuses, lines up and “crack.” The ball hits the stake. Navy is now on the way home.

Sam finally gets through Wicket #3, and stops.

Hunter is again working off blue, returning down the field. He kneels down and gets down low to the grass, checking the line of the turf. He jams the ball at #8.

St. John’s gets through Wickets #3 and #4. They stop to conference. Agreement is reached. But yellow goes wide past #5 and St. John’s stops there.

The most impressive shots so far have been taken by Hector. He’s turned into a crowd favorite. He’s jumped his ball over others, ricocheted through wickets, and he’s whacked blue to the edge. Now, he’s using blue to work his way to Wicket #5. Blue is forced back to the stake.

Jump after great shot at 2014 Annapolis Cup
Hector expresses the joy of the awesome shot

Hunter’s black ball continues forward to the final two wickets near the starting stake and stops.

St. John’s is still working toward the far side stake. Navy confers on what to do about blue stuck in the corner. Sam had used red and blue balls to leapfrog toward the last two wickets on the far side of the field. Once he was through, he sent blue to the corner. Sam gives a thumbs up and stops.

Ryan goes to get his blue ball and on the roll back, gives yellow — Sam’s ball — a thwack away from the wickets. Using his free shot, he follows yellow and works forward, continually smacking yellow down the field to get extra turns. He ends at the second to last wicket. He goes short to pause the ball. It’s set up for the next play.

It’s St. John’s turn. Hector is busy getting his picture taken with a pretty girl in a yellow sundress with red flower print. Later, he romps over to the side and asks a little boy if he wants to come play croquet. The boy is thrilled but too shy to answer. He just shakes his head and ducks down under mom’s arm.

Behind the players, it’s turning into a party. Dancing has started on the brick patio of the BBC building.The Navy band has turned the dance floor over to a DJ, who continues with swing and other hand-dancing kind of music. People are pulling sandwiches from their coolers and settling in for an afternoon of socializing. Few are actually watching the games now.

By this time Hunter has hit the home stake. But to win, they need to score 14 wicket points and two stake points for each ball. Hunter’s scored 12 wickets on the first go-round. He uses his ball to go back and help Ryan. Black is working off blue again. Hunter makes a bad shot. It hits the side of the wicket and bounces off the wire-wicket like a trampoline.

St. John’s hits the end stake. Sam and Hector immediately fall on the ground for several push-ups, borrowing a Navy football tradition where freshmen run to the end zone for pushups whenever the team scores a touch-down. Sam and Hector do their’s Navy style, with an in-the-air hand-clap on the up-push.

Navy moves forward, focused on winning the match. Black bounces off yellow and through the wicket. Those watching pause for an “oh wow” moment — he actually meant to do that! Hunter takes another shot to push yellow out of the way and position himself for the next wicket. It goes wide.

By this time, St. John’s is so out of position, they can only hit balls in-field to set up for the next shot. They start receiving advice from alumni on sidelines, arms waving to show Sam and Hector which way they should hit the ball.

Sam hits his yellow from one end of the field to the double wickets on the other side, barely missing going through. “AWWWWW,” from the crowd behind him.

While the game chugs along, three beefy dudes in polo shirts on the sidelines start dancing the twist, snapping their fingers to the beat. The party is starting to spill onto the field, not noticing the players focusing nearby.

Crowd spills onto the Annapolis Cup playing field
The crowd doesn’t notice they’ve spilled onto the playing field and the match is going on behind them.

“Nobody knows what’s going on,” says one person in the crowd. “They seem to be taking a long time,” yells back another trying to be heard over the music.

Hunter is almost to the end. “Don’t miss!” yells someone from the side. He does. But he’s able to position himself for the next turn.

Nearby, a guy in a powder blue button-down shirt and blue pants sits down next to a girl on a blanket and asks her to dance. She’s not quite ready.

On the field, Sam runs to the other end of the field toward his ball and does a flare-leap over the middle wicket, legs together with heels off to the side. A simple burst of joy to be playing a good game of croquet on a beautiful day. Few people saw it, otherwise he would have gotten a solid cheer.

Meanwhile, Hector has made it to the final home stake and he takes his ball back up field to help Sam. Sam is accepting a beer from the caddy and takes a sip before handing it back.

Each team has caddies, typically freshmen. Navy caddies are in full dress uniforms, two per team. They stand in the corners holding bottles of waters for Ryan and Hunter. St. John’s caddy (one per team) sports khakis and  button-down shirt, untucked. He carries long-neck bottles of beers for the Johnnies.

Black goes to hit blue, so Hunter can claim another shot. Instead, it mistakenly jumps over, nary a click between the balls. The crowd starts heckling, “Common Navy, get it together!”

It turns into a slug-fest.

Someone gets on the loud-speaker, and announces the score is “zero to zero” three hours into the first round of matches. The first team to win three of the five matches wins.

Ryan lines up shot at 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
Ryan gets ready to wallop Sam and Hector’s balls

The first match was held in 1983. “It was joke,” says Adrian Trevisan, Class of ’84 and one of the original players. The croquet players bought beer, invited everyone they knew and shared the beer with the Middies. An estimated 100 people showed up.

St. John’s won. After the match, the players went to someone’s house for a bar-b-que and more beers. Trevisan couldn’t remember who; he just remembers the fun. It got serious sometime after he graduated.

The Naval Academy didn’t win until 1985. Since then the overall total has been: St. John’s – 25, U.S. Naval Academy – 6. The Academy won last year (2013), after a seven-year loosing streak. The Academy has never won two matches in a row. St. John’s is a powerhouse on the croquet field, despite the colorful costumes.

Back on the field it’s turned into an endurance competition on Field 1. Sam and Hector have become more focused. Ryan and Hunter continue to discuss strategy.

Hunter takes a shot at the 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
Hector is about to whack Hunter’s black ball out of the way.

Meanwhile, the beer and wine tents have last call and are cleaning up. The viewers are gradually packing up and discussing where they’re going next.

At the end, after three-and-a-half hours, Sam, Hector, Ryan and Hunter made it as far they could possibly go without finishing the game. The match time is limited and it went the full limit. It came down to who was closest to the stake and who can hit the stake first. Johnnies pulled it out before Middies could. It ended with Sam “Tornado” Collins hitting the winning shot.

“It was the best game I’ve ever played,” said Ryan after the match. “We got a little ahead of ourselves and made some mistakes,” allowing the Johnnies to come back. “And,” adds Ryan, “they took advantage of it.”

The other two fields wrapped up about the same time. Two more matches on Fields 1 and 2 were to come.

The tournament was still underway as the sun was down. In the end, at about 8pm, the Naval Academy was awarded the cup. They won 4-1.

*****
Wrap-Up

Throughout the year, students practice croquet as the back-yard game that it is, having a good time. Once a year, at the Annapolis Cup, they’re stars. “All the alumni are watching you, the mayor is watching you and it’s a totally different experience,” says Sam.

“You come out, you hear 3,000 people screaming for you and you get to play a great game called croquet,” says St. John’s Imperial Wicket Sam Collilns.

To the alumni, it’s simply a party that keeps on going. Adrian Trevisan, Class of ’84, came from Princeton, New Jersey for the tournament. “It’s about as fun as golf to watch,” Trevisan says. “We really don’t pay that much attention to the game, not many people do.”

They played their match 30 years ago and are back to renew friendships and revive the feeling now being felt for the first time by this year’s players.

Imperial Wickets Sam and Ryan at 2014 Annapolis Cup croquet match
2014 Annapolis Imperial Wickets Sam (left) and Ryan (right)

POSTSCRIPT:

Ryan goes on to graduate at the end of the semester and will leave having fielded a championship team. He’ll head for a U.S. military job using his oceanic engineering degree. Sam has another year of school left. He’s going to continue rebuilding his team with an eye to redeeming his legacy as Imperial Wicket next year, and figure out whether he wants to go to law school.

“After getting to know (Middies),” says Sam, “they’re great people, they’re the nicest people.” And that’s what the match is really about in a small town where students from two widely different colleges share the same streets and the same bars.

By the end the day, players on both sides were drinking beers stashed in the St. John’s Croquet Players tent at the edge of Field 1 as the sun set on the 2014 Annapolis Cup.

As players have done for the past 32 years.


UPDATE (St. John’s Press, April 19, 2015) – Before a crowd of more than 4,500 spectators on the St. John’s College campus, the St. John’s croquet team reclaimed the Annapolis Cup on Saturday, April 18, besting the U.S. Naval Academy with a 3-2 victory. Thwarting a potential third consecutive victory for the Midshipmen, bringing home the trophy had special meaning for the Johnnies. “It’s about becoming the best again,” says St. John’s Imperial Wicket Samuel Collins, a senior from Bucks County, Pa. who led his team to its 26th win since the contest began 33 years ago.


 

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