Navy goes belly up against a St. John's croquet force

All fans on deck at match


Perhaps it was their matching Soviet red shirts - imprinted with a yellow hammer-and-sickle icon and the abbreviation "S.J.C.C.C.P," short for St. John's College Croquet Club Party.

Or the home-turf advantage, playing the genteel game on the college's green front lawn.

Or maybe the 400 alumni who traveled to Annapolis to root for their fellow Johnnies.

Something tilted in favor of the St. John's College players yesterday, bringing them victory in their annual croquet tournament against their hometown rivals from the U.S. Naval Academy.

After losing narrowly to Navy last year, the St. John's team - widely known as the Johnnies - came back to win, 5-0, during the five-hour match yesterday, its 18th win in a 24-year rivalry. In what began as a dare, the Annapolis Cup, as the event is called, has evolved into a high-stakes event, enjoyed by 1,500 guests who blanketed the grass facing College Avenue with elaborate picnic spreads.

In the early 1980s, a Naval Academy commandant challenged a St. John's freshman to find a sport the Great Books school could actually defeat the academy in. The midshipmen have been eating that commandant's words most years since.

With their red shirts, cuffed chinos and red berets, the Johnnies stood in stark contrast to their croquet rivals from the Naval Academy. St. John's uniforms vary wildly from year to year but are always garish. Every year, the midshipmen wear their white dress pants and white sweaters, with ties of their choice, ranging from Burberry plaid to navy blue and gold, the academy's colors. The teams field 10 players each, all male this year with the exception of one midshipman.

Just as at area steeplechase races and other tailgating affairs, many guests attend the Annapolis Cup to party. Unlike the freezing temperatures last year, the weather cooperated with bright sunshine this year, and spectators were slipping off their raincoats by the time the match began at lunchtime.

"They're actually doing something over there?" Karen Kranzer joked, pointing toward the three croquet courts, separated from her green L.L. Bean tent by a sea of people sprawled out on blankets. Kranzer and friend Lisa Gorum, both of Annapolis, prepared a gourmet feast that featured shrimp cocktail, crab dip and fruit with chocolate fondue, in a tent adorned with candelabra, a chandelier, crystal and silver trays.

Even farther away from the croquet action, the Dobbyn family held a party in a white party tent. All four Dobbyn brothers - Jack, 24; Joe, 23; Richard, 22; and Mike, 21, all of Alexandria, Va. - have attended St. John's and were decked out in blue seersucker suits, yellow ties and penny loafers.

Attending the match and related weekend festivities doubled as a 20th wedding anniversary celebration for John and Kathy Ertle, both Class of 1984 at St. John's. They drove in from Cleveland with their two young sons.

"It's a lot bigger now," John Ertle said of the Annapolis Cup. He was the so-called imperial wicket, or captain, of the St. John's team when the tournament began in 1983. Ertle's team wore Hawaiian-print shirts when they played the academy.

"They were always in their whites, and we were in anything but white," Ertle said.

The Johnnies' communist-themed shirts this year might even point to larger cultural differences between the two schools, some midshipmen suggested. "Maybe the reason why their shirts have sickle and hammers is because they're a little bit to the left, and we're a little bit to the right," said J.D. Feldmann, a plebe, or freshman, from St. Louis.

Midshipmen live under rigid schedules and perform military duties, unlike the free-spirited St. John's students, who have more unstructured time to ponder the Western classics.

Plebes couldn't even attend the Annapolis Cup last year because it was on a Sunday, said Gen Studer, a sophomore midshipman. The academy made an exception for them to attend this year. Even if plebes are 21 or older, they aren't allowed to drink alcohol.

Alcoholic beverages were plentiful yesterday, including champagne and Lynchburg Lemonade. Cigar smoke perfumed the air. Young women in sundresses of white eyelet lace and floral patterns were swing-dancing with dates. Guests of Todd Lamb, an Annapolis lobbyist, enjoyed the proper British croquet drink - the orange-flavored Pimm's liqueur mixed with lemonade, ginger ale and cucumber slices.

Junior and senior midshipmen, who didn't have to wear uniforms to the event, blurred the sartorial distinctions between the rival schools. Midshipman Matt Frederick sported camouflage shorts, aviator sunglasses, a trucker hat and a cowboy-style corduroy shirt.

"I don't own a suit so I got to go with what I've got," said Frederick, 24, a senior from Houston. "I might not look like a normal midshipman." He added: "But I'm still drinking responsibly."

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