15 April 2010
St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
story by Margaret Horton Edsall in The Capital, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
photo by Joshua McKerrow in The Capital, Annapolis, Maryland, USA
|St. John’s player Jonathan Tincher takes a stroke as teammate John Fleming, left, and Midshipman Luis Luy chat during a rainy practice session Tuesday at St. John’s College, where the midshipmen will meet the St. John’s croquet team on Saturday.|
In English high society, this familiar call, commonly heard about sprawling country houses, enticed interested players to drop their novels or riding crops and rally on the lawn for some jolly-good fun.
The announcement of the annual croquet game between the Johnnies and the Mids seems to have a similar effect on local residents and visitors alike. This Saturday, everyone who enjoys the sport and its circumstance will be lured to Annapolis and St. John's College's front lawn for the 28th Annual St. John's - Naval Academy Match.
Kevin Heyburn, an assistant attorney general in Austin, Texas, recently reminisced about how the match got started back in 1982.
"In the fall of my freshman year at St. John's, I went over to the academy to watch a pep rally the Mids were having before the Army-Navy football game," he said. "On the way home, as I was walking near the commandant of midshipmen, Adm. Leon "Bud" Edney; a stirring conversation ensued about the Mids' athletic prowess and how they could beat the Johnnies in any sport.
"That evening passed, but my mind remained fixed on coming up with a sport that would create an opportunity for students from both schools to get to know one another via a friendly competition," he said. "Then it came to me: What about croquet? The St. John's student government challenged the Brigade to a match and it was accepted. I guess you could say the rest is history."
While both St. John's and the Naval Academy are highly ranked undergraduate degree-granting institutions, the focus at the college is the Great Books Program, in which students read and discuss seminal works of Western civilization. At the academy, the main objective is to prepare midshipmen for military careers.
"Before the match became an annual occurrence, there really wasn't any social interaction between the schools," said Heyburn. "I think this game has linked these two institutions and is the perfect venue for these students to celebrate their undergraduate time in this wonderful town."
"The match started out as a small low-key event," said Dolores Strissel, St. John's manager of Alumni Activities, the department that oversees the event. "Because the college doesn't participate in many intercollegiate sports - sailing, fencing, crew and croquet only - this match has become very important to our students and it does offer a good opportunity to build relationships with the midshipmen."
Apparently, no one had any idea this family-friendly little competition would evolve into what many consider to be Annapolis' foremost springtime occasion.
"Every year, the number of spectators has increased way beyond expectation," said Strissel. "Along with students from both institutions, area residents and out-of-towners wanting to be a part of it, the event has become the perfect time for St. John's alumni to return for class reunions."
The match is entertainment at its best - a lively mix of sport, good sportsmanship and a spectacular lawn party.
And, for a lot of the spectators, watching the crowd - oftentimes dressed in zany costumes, formal wear and period attire reminiscent of fashion flaunted during a roaring good time at Gatsby's Long Island estate or in an English rose garden - is as much a draw as seeing the actual game played out.
Picnicking, which goes on all afternoon, is enjoyed at every level of style and taste. Anything goes: From blankets, folding chairs, hoagies and beer to rented tents, linen-covered tables, smoked salmon, chocolate-dipped strawberries and champagne; from paper plates and plastic forks to fine china and family silver.
Last year, a generator-lit crystal chandelier hung around, providing even more sparkle for the gala spectacle. Heaven knows what and how the fare will be served this Saturday.
Music will be part of the scene as well. St. John's Freshman Chorus will be on hand, showing off its talents with lovely serenades, and the Naval Academy's Trident Brass Band will pick up the beat with the best in swing. Impromptu dancing is guaranteed to break out around the lawn and keep the mood going.
"To me, the day of the croquet match is the best day of the school year," said Julie Henson, a member of St. John's Class of 2011. "Everyone is outside on the lawn dressed in their spring finest.
"It is wonderful to see Johnnies, midshipmen and Annapolitans gathered together, having a great time," she said. "Everyone is happy and talking to friends, watching the match or dancing."
"The rules of play and sportsmanship are paramount," said Patricia Dempsey, assistant director of communications at St. John's. "The Mids and the Johnnies will combine their competitive zeal with the genteel demeanor required by croquet's rules of etiquette, including no audible swearing or tantrum-like displays such as throwing a mallet or hitting a ball in protest of a referee's call."
This year's Imperial Wickets, the title bestowed on each team's captain, are Cameron Coates, a St. John's senior from Chicago, and David Cole, midshipman first class from Colorado Springs. Ten players (divided into five two-person teams) from both schools will take to the lawn during the afternoon, starting at 1 p.m.
They will play the game according to United States Croquet Association rules with regulation-size equipment, on a full-size croquet court, measuring 100-feet long by 50-feet wide, with nine metal wickets and two wooden stakes positioned to resemble a double diamond design. The players' singular objective is to advance the balls, via a mallet, through the course in the right order and direction. One point is given for each wicket and stake made. The team that is the first to score 14 wicket points and two stake points is declared the winner.
Team attire is an important component of the game.
While the Mids adhere to the croquet association's dress code - white shirts, pants, sweaters and shoes - their Imperial Wicket allows them to don individual ties for the match. Johnnies, on the other hand, always pull out all the stops when it comes to their uniform.
"St. John's Imperial Wicket is given the distinction of picking his team's attire," said Dempsey. "Year after year, he has been famously known for guarding the secret of the uniform, revealing it to his fellow teammates only minutes before the match begins. Last year, the Johnnies wore Viking garb; they also have appeared on the lawn in everything from kilts and camouflage fatigues to a Bruce Springsteen 'Born in the U.S.A.' outfit."
When the best of five matches have been played and all the points are counted, the winner of the 28th annual event will be awarded the coveted Annapolis Cup.
"The trophy - in dire need of restoration - was found in the 1980s at a flea market in Texas," said Heyburn. Folks at the Little Campus restaurant (now Galway Bay on Maryland Avenue) offered to pay for its "makeover" as well as the addition of plaques that would record each year's winning team.
Since the competition began, the Johnnies have dominated, winning 22 of 27 matches. The trophy, if won by St. John's, will be displayed in the Alumni Office at Chancellor Johnson House. Should the Mids be victorious, the trophy will be held by the Brigade's 28th Company, the unit that traditionally supplies the academy's players.
"We've not won a match during the time I have been on the team, so I am hoping this will be our year," said Cole. "It would be great to bring the Annapolis Cup back to the 28th Company wardroom where it could be displayed with all our other awards. But, regardless of the outcome, we all have such fun at this event. The Brigade loves the match and so many Mids come out. St. John's is a great host and we really get along."
Coates feels much the same way.
"I'm sad about leaving, but I'm glad to have been a part of this game," he said. "The Mids are great. We don't get to hang out as much as we would like because they have more restrictions on their time."
For Alex Kriz, a member of St. John's Class of 2009, Saturday's match will be a time to remember and relive.
"Prior to graduating from St. John's, I spent two years on the Annapolis campus then transferred to their sister campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to complete my final two years," said Kriz. "I played on the Santa Fe croquet team and, as a native Annapolitan, it was always great to come back home with my teammates and play the Annapolis guys as well as the Mids.
"What I have come to realize, since graduating, is that this match means more to me now as an alum than it did as a student because every year I know I am going to see my closest friends again as well as other people who are still there at the school. This is such a special way to reunite with them all."
This year, the match will feature something new - a silent auction. Everyone is invited to visit the Mind-Body Challenge Tent, located on the campus' front lawn, where bids will be accepted for items such as: one month's free parking in downtown Annapolis; lunch with St. John's College President Christopher Nelson; tickets to the Maryland Renaissance Festival, complete with two nights stay at the Annapolis Hampton Inn and Suites; and the Ultimate St. John's College Croquet Package, including a portable director's chair, water bottle, T-shirts and a tote bag stuffed with great goodies.
All auction proceeds will help fund renovations to Inglehart Hall, the college's 100-year-old gymnasium.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to attend the match:
On Saturday, spectators will not be permitted to set up their spaces until 8 a.m. (The rain date is Sunday.)
Tents and tables may be erected only in the designated areas, located in front of Greenfield Library. Tents cannot can be larger than 20-by-20 feet.
Only lawn chairs and blankets will be allowed in the vicinity of the croquet courts, located north of the pathway to Prince George Street.
Containers storing alcoholic beverages must be monitored at all times by an adult, age 21 or older.
No grills, kegs or dogs will be permitted on St. John's campus.
Tents and all other items must be removed from the campus grounds by 8 p.m. on Saturday.
Margaret Horton Edsall is a nationally-known writer who resides in Edgewater.