Croquet links college cultures

College cultures bridged by croquet

April 22, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When a dozen Navy midshipmen come to play croquet on the grand green of St. John's College tomorrow, the stakes are high.

The Johnnies team of 12 will be ready for Annapolis' version of Athens versus Sparta, and they have a winning record to uphold dating back to 1983, when it all began.

Part of the fun of the friendly but intense "Annapolis Cup" is that, as crisp as the academy Mids look, they almost always lose to the shaggier Johnnies. This year, the St. John's team of free-spirited players just won the national college croquet championship when they weren't reading Hegel. For the record, about all the teams have in common is that both sides are almost all male, with one female player on each.

The spring showdown between the neighboring rivals, which begins at 1 p.m. and takes all afternoon, is a splendid study of contrasting cultures in a small city. The nine-wicket contest is not one of strength, speed and endurance, but of technique, strategy and finesse. With beer and wine allowed on the sidelines, cheering onlookers are known to make their feelings known.

In croquet, each player uses a mallet to hit a wooden ball at a stake and through a series of wire wickets. And the college that wins the best of five matches (played by teams of four) rules the rivalry. When it comes to the end game of "poison ball," things get even more interesting.

"Croquet is the one thing that levels the playing ground between us," said Riley Ossorgin, a senior player at St. John's College. "They don't want to get beat by pencil-necked intellectuals."

On the other hand, Ossorgin reflected, "They'll have cool-sounding jobs when they get out."

The captain of the Naval Academy croquet squad, Adam Todd, 22, confirmed the will to win at a lawn practice this week on the St. John's College campus. He and other mallet-swingers clad in whites were free, or "at liberty," to leave the Yard, as the academy campus is called.

Characterizing the academy atmosphere as "controlled intensity," Todd said: "We definitely do play to win. We take our croquet very seriously. We always try to be the best and we definitely bring that over here."

Competitive feelings

Todd, a senior from Georgia who is slated to become a naval flight officer, said the croquet team members come from one company but from all classes.

"This [game] is like physical chess," he said. "You have to know the terrain."

Across the field, the St. John's team captain - known as the "Imperial Wicket" - is Nick Whittier, 23, from York, Pa. By tradition, he will try to give a speech at the academy's lunch mess today, during which he is likely to get drowned out by all the noise that 4,000 midshipmen can make.

Whittier said the home court advantage gives a slight edge. "Our courts have slopes, bumps and tufts of grass where the [historic] Liberty Tree used to be," he said. "Shots are definitely more difficult."

"But it's a wonderful time," Whittier said.

For Whittier and 90 fellow seniors at one of the nation's oldest colleges, now is the time to let loose after completing oral exams on senior essays drawn from the Great Books curriculum.

The St. John's croquet uniforms tend toward the whimsical and vary from year to year - last time, they wore Army camouflage. The members have also dressed in fake tuxedo T-shirts and in early 1980s tennis shorts.

Whittier said he could not reveal this spring's attire, which will be a closely held secret until game time. (Sunday is the rain date.)

A uniting tradition

Some city residents, including Margaret Eklof, like to picnic on the lawn during the match to take in the rather English sporting scene.

"We love both schools," she said. "They're the heart of the community."

Alec Emmert, 22, a Naval Academy English major who will soon train for duty on a nuclear submarine, said the light-hearted tradition gives the neighboring walks of life a rare chance to socialize.

"The dichotomy makes us warriors and them intellectuals," he said. "But when all is said and done, we're all 22-year-old college students."

The event, which begins at 1 p.m., will be held on the St. John's campus. It is free and open to the public.

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