Sporting chance to get into gear

Croquet: Players and spectators alike suit up for the annual match between the Naval Academy and St. John's.

April 25, 2004|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Life was good for Rick Rubel.

Nattily attired in white from head to toe - with the exception of red suspenders and bow tie - the Crownsville resident stood on the manicured lawn of St. John's College in Annapolis yesterday and sipped champagne from a fluted glass. He chatted with friends and nibbled on caviar, crab dip finger sandwiches and chocolate-dipped strawberries.

A radio blared the broadcast of the lacrosse match between the U.S. Naval Academy and the Johns Hopkins University down the street at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Rubel, a graduate of the Naval Academy class of 1972, may have come to St. John's for the annual croquet match that pits the small liberal arts college against the might of the Naval Academy, but the only game he really cared about was going on a mile away.

"That's the funny thing," Rubel said. "Nobody watches the croquet. It just happens to be going on here."

Not watching is part of the tradition of the Annapolis Cup - a 22-year, friendly-but-intense competition between the two colleges.

They're neighbors, but students at the two schools live in separate worlds.

St. John's students - known as "Johnnies" - live a life of the mind through a four-year immersion in a Great Books curriculum that includes study of the works of Plato, Jane Austen and Euclid. The 4,000 midshipmen at the Naval Academy endure grueling physical and academic programs in preparation for military careers and combat, with some seniors headed for Iraq.

Yet, the two schools meet every spring on a grass court at St. John's idyllic campus for a proper game of croquet. For many of the spectators - who attend the match in their best garden-party attire - the yearly event marks the season's official arrival in Annapolis.

"It's something that one tries to incorporate into one's springtime if possible," said Amanda Fegley.

She and her husband, Andrew Fegley, live nearby on Prince George Street, and have been attending the croquet match for more than two decades.

Yesterday, with friends, they enjoyed their picnic of fried chicken and turkey sandwiches with decorations of fake grapes and real flowers.

"It's like being at a steeplechase or a tailgating affair," said Eastport resident Anne Harrington.

Before the 1 p.m. start of the 22nd Annapolis Cup, Naval Academy player Brock Zimmerman, got in some last-minute practice shots. The first-year Mid hoped to make a dent in St. John's series advantage of 17 victories to the academy's 4.

"I think we have the best chance to bring one back to Navy in a long time," he said.

It was the last match for senior Sam Spalding, the Imperial Wicket- or captain- of the St. John's team.

"It's sad, but it's that much more of a drive to win, and go out in a grand show," he said.

The Mids took the field first, looking dapper in white letter sweaters emblazoned with a yellow N on the front, white pants and white buck shoes. The Johnnies made an entrance, bursting through the doors of the Barr Buchanan Center, outfitted in Army fatigue T-shirts and shorts.

"Go, Army," one woman shouted.

According to the rules of croquet, each player uses a mallet to hit a wooden ball at a stake and through a series of wire wickets.

During the match, croquet fans strolled the manicured lawn encircled by red brick, Georgian-style buildings.

Women - in spring dresses, pearls and sandals with heels that sank into the grass - shaded themselves with parasols. The men wore khakis, blazers and boaters.

On a small slope, some St. John's students sat on a blanket and poured glasses of wine from a box.

"I have no idea what's going on," said sophomore Katheryn Norris, in a white cotton eyelet dress accessorized with Barbara Bush-like pearls.

"Even if we're not watching the game, it's still so much fun to be here," added fellow sophomore Margot Behrend.

Cassidy Rasmussen and Dwight Knoll dressed in their respective school uniforms.

A second-year midshipman, Rasmussen was in starched whites. Knoll sported aviator glasses, a Hawaiian-style shirt, shorts and was barefoot.

The Mid and the Johnnie - who manage to be friends despite their schools' rivalry - sat on a beige vinyl couch on the lawn and took in the festivities.

Rasmussen said that the big lacrosse game dominated last week's sports talk at the academy. "This seemed like more fun to me," she said.

Kathie Young and Andy Smarick of Arnold didn't know which team to root for.

"They're both home teams," Smarick said.

"It's hard to think of the Naval Academy as an underdog," Young said. "But in croquet, they really are."

The five-hour match ended about 6 p.m., with the bookish St. John's continuing its domination. Final score: Johnnies 4, Mids 1.

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