An Annapolis Tradition

Johnnies To Host Midshipmen In Their 27th Annual Croquet Face-off

April 19, 2009|By Lindsay Kalter | Lindsay Kalter,

Local sports fans can trade in their beer and baseball caps for champagne and fedoras Sunday as St. John's College plays host to the U.S. Naval Academy in their 27th annual croquet match.

In a display of sophisticated spectatorship - think The Great Gatsby meets tailgating - a crowd of 1,500 is expected to gather on St. John's campus to watch the college's croquet team play the Midshipmen from the 28th company.

The winning team is awarded the Annapolis Cup.

Jo Ann Mattson, director of alumni relations at St. John's, said audience members come to socialize and show off extravagant gowns and suits as much as for the game itself.

"They dress up and have fun, outdoing one another in creating their own spaces," she said. "We had someone hang a chandelier from a tree last year."

She added that the game serves as St. John's reunion, and the event usually draws about 400 alumni.

Mattson compares the competitive pairing to David and Goliath. The athletically inclined Naval Academy students have won five of the 26 games against St. John's, which fields one of the best croquet clubs in the country.

Senior Micah Beck, imperial wicket of St. John's croquet team, which is comparable to team captain, said he happened to visit the college during its annual match as a 19-year-old incoming student.

"I observed it, and after that my father bought a backyard [croquet] set," he said. "And the rest is history."

Beck said the usual crowd ranges from dedicated croquet fans to weekend picnickers.

"I think it's a little different for everyone. Some people come to watch the croquet matches, and some people come and never see a ball be hit," he said. "I guess in some sense it's the students who pay the least attention, because they see us out on campus all the time."

And, of course, the spectators aren't the only ones who partake in the tradition of elaborate accouterments. The Midshipmen follow United States Croquet Association code - crisp white shirts, sweaters, pants and shoes - but the Johnnies change their uniforms year to year. The outfits are revealed at the game's start.

Senior Patrick Claque, the Mids' imperial wicket, said in an e-mail that they stick to their all-white duds because it's tradition, and "the Navy loves tradition." Plus, "our uniforms look awesome!" he added.

Claque said he is looking forward to competing against the Johnnies again but also likes the opportunity to be in the limelight.

"The prospect of beating the Johnnies keeps most Mids interested," he said. "The croquet match is huge in Annapolis, and it is fun to be on the big stage."

The competition involves 12 players on each side, divided into two-person teams. The object of the game is to move a ball by hitting it with a mallet through a course of small, wire arches, or wickets, and wooden stakes. A point is scored each time a ball is hit through a wicket and when a ball strikes a stake in the correct order and direction. The first side to score 14 wicket points and 2 stake points for each of its balls wins.

Though the game of croquet dates to the 19th century, the history between the Johnnies and Mids is a relatively recent one. According to Patricia Dempsey, assistant communications director at St. John's, the idea for the match began in 1982 with Kevin Heyburn, a St. John's freshman at the time.

Heyburn went to a pep rally for an Army-Navy football game. Afterward, he overheard the Naval Academy's commandant talking about the Navy athletic programs and started a conversation with him. Heyburn told the commandant that St. John's had a competitive athletic program in the old days and that they often beat Navy in sports like football. The commandant scoffed and said that St. John's could not beat the academy in any sport. Heyburn challenged him, saying St. John's could beat the academy in croquet. Heyburn subsequently proposed a croquet match between the schools, and the first one was held in 1983.

For Sunday's free event, which begins at 1 p.m., the St. John's Freshman Chorus will sing and the Naval Academy's Trident Brass Band will play swing music.

if you go

Who: St. John's College vs. U.S. Naval Academy

What: 27th annual croquet match

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: St. John's College, Front Lawn, Annapolis

Information: 410-626-2539

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