Mids, Johnnies prep for a civilized wicket showdown

April 21, 2006|By JAMIE STIEHM | JAMIE STIEHM,SUN REPORTER

Sunday's 24th annual showdown between St. John's College and the U.S. Naval Academy is of the most collegial and civilized kind - a croquet match - but that doesn't mean the stakes aren't high. The Navy team won narrowly last year in an upset, 3-2, since traditionally the Johnnies triumph on their own turf - the games are always played on the three-century-old campus, which has a serene lawn facing College Avenue.

The so-called imperial wicket, or captain, of the St. John's College team, Matt Mangold, says that's not likely to happen again. The Johnnies, who won a national championship title earlier this year, won't take their Navy rivals for granted - Navy took a national trophy home last year in a different category.

"This year, we're going to be more conservative since they are really consistent," said Mangold, 25, of Kansas. "It's been a rebuilding year, and we need to play a good, smart, short game."

With picnic baskets and blankets in hand, throngs are drawn to the rare spectacle of midshipmen and Johnnies competing on a playing field. Women watching often dress up in spring frocks and hats, while men favor seersucker.

While the Navy team wears neat white sweaters and slacks with blue and gold trim, the Johnnies tend toward more wild costume attire, with different colors and themes every year. Red will be a primary color on the St. John's side this weekend, Mangold said, but he refused to divulge more in order to avoid spoiling the surprise.

Mangold said his team tries to play every day in the spring on the lawn. Dustin Wood, 21, a midshipman from Virginia who will train to be a Navy pilot after graduation this spring, said as his team's imperial wicket, he has to fit in team practices between required formal parades and intramural sports.

"Last year's victory was pretty exciting," said Wood, of Virginia. "I played in a tiebreaking game. We try to be confident and play as much as we can."

Wood said the more regimented life at the academy makes it hard to play croquet as often as his counterparts at St. John's College.

At St. John's, the Great Books college curriculum, which starts with learning ancient Greek in the first year, requires plenty of study, thought and writing but also allows the students large chunks of time to manage their own schedules. Before being assigned to the Academy's 28th company, which is usually in charge of croquet, Wood said, "I never picked up a mallet."

Three courts of croquet will be laid out, each about 90 by 50 feet, Mangold said, and all will be in use simultaneously. Two-man teams from each side will compete - Navy has the lone woman player - and the teams field a dozen players, the captains said. Anne Morris, the Navy coach, has volunteered to coach the match for several years.

It all began more than 20 years ago, according to town lore, when a midshipman issued a challenge to a group of Johnnies in a pub: Name a sport, any sport, and we'll beat you at it.

Mangold, who plans to be a teacher in Baltimore, said the match creates a social synergy between the brainy liberal arts college, with about 400 students, and the academy, which has 10 times as many. He conceded the midshipmen are more physically fit but said that is not all it takes to win the game.

"We try to beat them with mental expertise," the senior said.

jamie.steihm@baltsun.com

The Navy-St. John's College croquet match begins at 1 p.m. on the St. John's College campus.

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