Match pits warriors against poets

The Baltimore Sun

Redemption was at stake yesterday for two St. John's croquet players who took the field at their college against two midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy as part of the 25th annual spring showdown between the Annapolis schools.

Christopher Mules and Tristan W. Evans-Wilent remembered all too well the April day in 2005 when they were partners playing in the deciding game. The pair lost then, handing Navy a rare 3-2 victory in a rivalry both sides enjoy as a way to settle - and display - their differences.

In an elegant end to their college croquet partnership, the pair of Johnnies were at the top of their form yesterday and won their match.

Indeed, St. John's won all the contests, registering a 5-0 sweep. As the afternoon sun beat down on thousands of spectators, many gathered to picnic on cucumber sandwiches, lemonade and some of the stronger stuff, mixed with mint. Some were clad in festive filmy dresses, others wore crisp white naval uniforms, and there were straw hats and parasols all around the college's "great lawn."

"We were so distraught when we lost, we took a year off from school," Evans-Wilent, a lanky junior, said as he and Mules gulped champagne after their match yesterday. "I parked cars, I took a trip to Paris. ... But this [win] is sweet, quite an epiphany."

"As I drink out of this cup, I taste fulfillment and redemption," Mules, a senior, said.

Watching nearby on the sidelines was Walter Sechriest, a Washington management consultant who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1987. He played on one of only five Navy croquet teams to win over the years of the rivalry.

"Warriors versus poets," he said. "Today we're blood enemies, and tonight we're friends again."

Each college is known for its rigor. At St. John's College, founded in the 18th century, the 400 to 500 students study a curriculum composed of great books and thinkers. The 4,000 midshipmen and future officers live regimented daily lives in Bancroft Hall on the Academy "Yard."

In a moment of cross-cultural harmony, Midshipman Brett Woodard swing-danced with Tammie Kahnhauser, a Johnnie. The atmosphere was such that college officials said it was the largest, most congenial crowd they had seen for the "Annapolis Cup."

The dozen mallet-wielding Johnnies, wearing "Born in the USA" T-shirts inspired by the Bruce Springsteen song, said the idea was to counter last year's "Back in the USSR" theme, lest anyone question their patriotism. The year, place and time of each player's birth was printed on the back. The Academy team members, who all belong to the 28th Company, appeared in white sweaters and pants. Each side had one female player.

Few knew that the originator of the croquet challenge flew in from Dallas for the match. Kevin Heyburn, an assistant attorney general for Texas, said he noticed as a St. John's freshman in 1983 that there were few chances for Johnnies and midshipmen to mix.

He recalled that he told an Academy commandant that the schools once competed regularly in various sports, including rowing.

As he recounts it, the brusque reply was: "I don't recommend you challenging us in any sport now."

And so the croquet proposal was sent, by letter, to the head of midshipmen. The gauntlet was taken up.

"I didn't want to miss the 25th," Heyburn said, adding a confession: "I'm the impresario - I don't really know how to play croquet."

Of all the young men mingling on the green, the stakes were highest for G. August Deimel, 25, a St. John's College graduate. He had a grand plan to propose to his sweetheart, Sara Wagner, a junior working on a class essay about the German philosopher Leibniz. He persuaded their families to come secretly from Pittsburgh for the occasion and had an opal and ruby engagement ring, made on Main Street, ready to dazzle.

"It was a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff," Deimel said.

When he fell to his knees, she could not refuse his proposal to spend the rest of their lives together.

Friends and family then accused Deimel of being, in one's words, "a hopeless romantic."

He nodded ebulliently and asked his bride-to-be to dance - swing dance - to an Andrews Sisters song. She accepted that offer, too.

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