Blake Myers bore the weight of nearly three decades of croquet dominance on his shoulders Saturday, and there were times when it didn't feel all that comfortable.
As Imperial Wicket of the St. John's College croquet team, it was up to the 21-year-old senior from Santa Fe, N.M., to uphold his school's proud tradition of regularly beating the U.S. Naval Academy for the coveted Annapolis Cup. Going into Saturday's 29th annual competition, the Johnnies had won 23 times, and every year since 2006. But No. 24 was far from a sure thing.
"Navy is a lot better this year than they were last year," an elated Myers said after the Johnnies won their third game of the day, assuring them of victory in the best-of-five match. "It was harder this year, but that makes it more fulfilling."
Truth be told, the annual match between the two Annapolis institutions, begun in 1983 as a way of bringing the two very different campuses together, is hardly a blood sport. Many of the thousands of spectators gathered on the front lawn at St. John's seemed only vaguely aware that there was a competition going on at all, so busy were they chatting or eating or showing off their spring finery.
"It's more about the communal spirit between campuses," said Thomas Wetmore, a senior at St. John's Santa Fe campus who came to see what the rivalry is all about — and maybe help start a new annual contest, between the St. John's campuses in Maryland and New Mexico.
Here's how serious the rivalry is: Wetmore, standing on the sidelines of one of the three croquet courses set up on the St. John's lawn, graciously offered one of the Johnnies a puff on his cigar. No security showed up to escort Wetmore off the lawn for interfering with the game, although the player did — after thinking for a moment — turn him down.
"It's a really good time," said Zach Davis, 19, an academy plebe from Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's a little hard to tell, whether it's more about the party or the croquet."
Indeed, the scene more resembled a 1920s lawn party than a 21st-century athletic competition. Many of the spectators were either in uniform or in outfits that were decidedly reminiscent of their grandparents' generation. Men wore straw hats, bow ties and suspenders, while women wore elaborate headgear and carried parasols. Jazz and big-band music played over the loudspeakers. People danced the Charleston.
"I think it's the best tradition at the U.S. Naval Academy," said Ross Hermann, a 20-year-old USNA sophomore from Marietta, Ga.
The teams wore identical white outfits — a uniform chosen by the Johnnies, junior Luke Wakeen said, "to make it look like Navy wins every match" (and, perhaps, lull the Midshipmen into a false sense of security). Wakeen, who said he'd become an expert croquet player about an hour earlier, offered a handy tip for telling the two sides apart: Look at the shoes. The Navy team all wore regulation whites, while the St. John's squad wore tennis shoes, loafers, whatever was handy.
The Annapolis Cup offers a rare chance for proponents of the two schools to socialize — the only chance on a playing field. Mids lead strictly regimented lives and are trained in the arts of war. Johnnies learn from a curriculum based on a core list of great books and are trained to philosophize. There's generally not a lot of overlap.
"For the Johnnies, I think it's a bit more important than it is for the Navy," said Chris Mark, St. John's '81, who said he was a charter member of the school's croquet club and was sporting a vintage 1997 Annapolis Cup T-shirt. "It's good to know we can beat Navy at something."
Heck, there's more partisan nastiness between the Republicans and Democrats who routinely have at each other just blocks away in the State House. Bonhomie reigned refreshingly supreme Saturday, though perhaps with just the slightest of edges.
"We'll get them next year," Hermann promised.