The Wizards Of The Wicket

November 24, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

A chill wind drifts across the Naval Academy yard, carrying the sounds of warriors in training: grunts from the football players, guttural orders and the snap of rifle stocks from the drill team, the click of wooden balls from the croquet squad.

Croquet?

You may think of croquet as the pastime of the tea-and-scone set, but members of the Naval Academy's team see it as Clausewitz on a manicured lawn. Had the Prussian military tactician been a devotee of the game, his classic work might have been entitled "On War -- Through The Wickets."

"It's a lot like chess. There's a lot of strategy involved," said Midshipman 1st Class John "J. J." Phelan, the team captain, as he paused last week on the practice field, a patch of grass behind Bancroft Hall. "You always have to think about the next shot."

Suddenly, team member James Golladay -- who won a medal as a Navy enlisted man during the Panama invasion -- watched as his ball missed the wicket. He tightened his grip on his mallet, shut his eyes and leaned back with a grimace. The medal "doesn't make me a better croquet player," the Silver Spring resident said a few moments later.

"If you could see the playbooks I have -- they're more complicated than the football plays," said Michael Charrier, Navy's head coach.

The 10-member squad has a better record than the football team. The team is the defending national champion, and in April, two Navy seniors defeated Yale to take the collegiate honors with the United States Croquet Association.

"One of the Yale players stuffed in a wicket, in other words shot and it didn't go through all the way; it bounced off," explained Mr. Charrier, who also is chairman of the association's collegiate division. "Which gave Navy the chance to hit him and make three additional wickets to win."

In croquet, two-member teams assemble on a grass court that measures 84 feet by 104 feet. Using an English-made hardwood mallet, they hit 1-pound wooden balls at a center stake and through six wickets shaped like inverted U's, which have only an eight-inch clearance for the ball.

Players try to be the first around the court, scoring points offensively by passing through the wickets and defensively by striking an opponent's ball, an act known as "roquet." Players then are allowed to knock the opponent's ball out of position -- called "croquet" -- before taking another shot.

"You have to have excellent hand-eye coordination," said Mr. Charrier. And keeping your head down is key. "You have to relinquish control of your body to your subconscious mind," he said.

Last month Midshipman 1st Class Knox Taylor of Burgaw, N.C., and James Knerr of St. John's College apparently did just that. They took second place at the Collegiate Croquet Open at the Merion Cricket Club in Haverford, Pa. The next meet is an indoor open at Smith College in February.

The squad takes to the court for several hours two or three times a week. "We've been known to practice until the sun goes down," said Mr. Phelan.

And none of these three team members ever played the game competitively until they arrived at the academy and found themselves in the 34th company, the breeding ground of croquet.

A dozen years ago, a member of the 34th company became an unwitting link to this high-brow game with 16th century French royal roots: He made a bet in an Annapolis bar.

The cocky midshipman, whose name is lost to history, bragged that Navy could beat neighboring St. John's College, The Great Books School, at any athletic competition. "OK," the "Johnny" replied. "How about croquet?"

So far the St. John's squad has proven that midshipman wrong, winning 8 of 11 annual matches. Each year the torch -- well, the mallet -- has been passed to a new generation of the 34th company.

Mr. Phelan said he was "pretty excited" when he found himself in the company and soon part of the team with the best uniforms in The Yard: white pants and shoes, a double-breasted blue coat and red bow tie.

There is also the novelty of croquet at the Naval Academy, sport as conversation piece.

"Nobody knows anything about croquet," he said, leaning on his mallet. "It just seems like a joke. You don't think of the military and croquet."

As croquet captain, Mr. Phelan has endured the snickers and jibes at home in Lakeland, Fla. But many at the academy see the sport as "cool," he said. Others "think it's kind of hokey," acknowledged Mr. Taylor.

Mr. Phelan expects to use his croquet skills as a surface warfare officer. Perhaps one day after he wins a great naval battle, historians will trace Admiral Phelan's tactics to this very patch of grass.

"That's one thing they don't do enough of around here, games of strategy," grumbled Mr. Taylor, 21, who hopes to become a Navy SEAL, the service's elite commando unit. But during a service selection interview several weeks ago, SEAL personnel were not as impressed about his hours of strategy on the field of wickets.

"They asked me if I thought the words croquet and SEAL should be on the same piece of paper," he said. "I said I thought it would show how well-rounded I was."

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