LAWN PARTY

The Baltimore Sun

Tiger Woods would have been impressed. St. John's College senior Tristan Evans-Wilent raised a croquet mallet and smacked a softball-sized sphere 20 feet across patchy, uneven grass and through a wiry wicket.

It doesn't take much to figure out that the Ithaca, N.Y., resident has a knack for croquet, a centuries-old, genteel game played mainly in backyards as a recreational activity but also competitively among clubs and colleges throughout the country.

Evans-Wilent is a member of the popular St. John's croquet team, which tomorrow meets the Naval Academy in one of the nation's premier amateur croquet events, the Annapolis Cup, on the lawn of the Annapolis college.

The two teams have helped to give croquet a significant presence in the Baltimore-Annapolis area. Their match, hailed by Gentleman's Quarterly magazine as "the purest intercollegiate athletic event in America," is a throwback to the early 20th century, when croquet was the backdrop for an outdoor gala that drew the who's who of high society.

Each year, thousands of spectators gather for what is regarded as Annapolis' quintessential people-watching event. Folks dress up in Roaring '20s garb, sip champagne, hold lavish picnics and dance to tunes performed by the St. John's Freshman Chorus and the Naval Academy's Trident Brass Band.

"It's a party. It's basically your old-fashioned backyard croquet," said Anne Morris, Navy's volunteer coach. "It's a game, but not a sport. Real croquet is a sport."

And croquet players are passionate about the game. They play on courts as well-manicured as golf-course greens, and in tournaments throughout the country.

There are more than a half-dozen croquet clubs in the area, as well as retirement homes that field teams.

One of the most popular invitation-only croquet tournaments is held at Patuxent Croquet Club in Howard County, which is on the property of Larriland Farm owners Larry and Polly Moore.

The couple, who have been playing croquet for decades, founded the members-only club about 10 years ago. Their annual tournament, which will be held in May, draws low-handicap players from around the country.

Larry Moore remembers his father and other adults playing croquet through the Great Depression. Back then, his father leveled off an area on their property for croquet. When Moore moved to his current residence, he did the same.

"That's why I never played golf," he said. "I never had the time or the money, but we would play croquet after supper with our children, and I had friends who would come over on Sundays and play great croquet games."

"It's a pleasant thing to do on an afternoon with your friends," said St. John's senior Ian Harris of New York City. He's the croquet team's imperial wicket, or captain. The St. John's team has no coach; the members train and coach themselves.

Unlike many other sports, croquet is an activity that knows no age boundaries; one of St. John's rivals is the team at the nearby Ginger Cove retirement community. The game also has no height requirements and no minimum requirements for athleticism or dexterity. Players say that the game's general rules are easy to grasp and its exercise benefits are endless.

"In a single match, you can walk 2 1/2 miles - and we normally play three matches a day for five days," said Morris about tournament play. "People of all ages play. Two of the hottest players in the country are a set of twins from Michigan who are juniors in high school. The oldest player I know is in Connecticut, and he's 97. He just hangs in there with the rest of us."

Concentration and focus are as important as skill level in croquet. It's a game of strategies, where players plan several moves well in advance of the shot.

"It's a very tactical game," said Rich Curtis, president of the West Palm Beach, Fla., based United States Croquet Association (USCA). "Most people have described croquet as a cross between chess and billiards that's played on a lawn."

One of the challenges to the game is getting the word about it out. The main croquet hotbeds are in Florida and California - venues with warm weather year-round. The game is played at the high school level in North Carolina, Missouri and upstate New York.

"The thing about croquet clubs is, because there are so few courts, it's so difficult to recruit a sizable number of people," said croquet player Rodney Calver of the West River Wickets club in Galesville. "It's not like baseball or golf, where there are lots of courses. If people come along, we're happy to see them."

For most players, croquet is still a backyard activity, where hard-line rules are rarely enforced. But for others like Morris, it is serious competition. She learned 15 years ago, after watching a croquet event in Florida. She and her husband took courses and training and now compete nationally about five times a year.

Morris also serves as a college division specialist for the USCA, which next week hosts the collegiate national championship in suburban Philadelphia. More than 60 players are scheduled to compete from schools such as Navy, St. John's, Bard College in Maine, Georgetown and Virginia Military Institute.

Morris says the game's expenses hinder its popularity. A croquet mallet, for example, can run from $175 to $800.

Still, the game maintains a following at colleges that have long fostered a croquet tradition. Some like St. John's and Navy pass that tradition from one class to the next - even if the sport is not popular among everyone on campus.

"You're not going to hear a lot of people on a campus say, 'Hey, let's go play croquet.' It's more like, 'Let's go throw the Frisbee around or play basketball,' " said Bryan Carlson of Downingtown, Pa., a St. John's senior and imperial wicket on the team.

At St. John's, croquet is one of the signature sports, and almost every student is encouraged to take part. Evans-Wilent says it took him two years to command a croquet ball with the accuracy of a golfer putting along a green.

For the most part, the college game is played in a laid-back atmosphere, its players enjoying the outdoors as much as the match itself.

"It's just a fun time to hang out with your friends on a lawn in the sun," said Harris. "Croquet is very relaxing. Stress is generally kept to a minimum because if you're having a bad day, big deal. You get made fun of and you have a good time anyway."

The ancient origins of the game are unknown. Curtis of the croquet association said that some sports historians believe the game originated with Irish shepherds who hit balls with their crooks - which served as the root of its name.

The modern version of the game, he said, originated in the British Isles during the 19th century and traveled to most other English-speaking countries.

Croquet's popularity in the U.S. waned during the 1890s, when Boston's clergy spoke out "against the drinking, gambling and licentious behavior" associated with the sport played on the Common. But croquet resurfaced as a pastime in the 1920s when it became popular among entertainment and literary figures.

There are many variations of the sport, including 9-wicket (played at the Annapolis Cup), 6-wicket (played by many of the area's croquet clubs), extreme (terrain does not matter), bicycle and mondo (a super-sized version of regular croquet, using sledgehammers and bowling balls).

At St. John's, however, students prefer the old-fashioned variety, which is what player Rachael Boyce of Westminster grew up playing in her grandparents' backyard.

"I guess like any other lawn sport, it's nice to come out on a beautiful day and play," said Boyce, a senior. "It's like pool, a lot of fun, strategic, and you're always improving."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

Playing croquet

Below is information on 9-wicket croquet, the casual game usually played in backyards and parks.

A full-size croquet court is 100 feet long by 50 feet wide.

Nine metal wickets and two wooden stakes are arranged in a double-diamond pattern.

There are two sides playing the game. One side uses blue and black balls, the other red and yellow balls. In a singles game, each player plays two balls; in doubles, each player plays the same ball throughout the game.

The object of the game is to advance the balls through the course of wickets and into the finishing stake by hitting the balls with a mallet. The player (or team) which gets the balls into the finishing stake first wins the game.

[Sources: United States Croquet Association and St. John's College Web sites]

>>>If you go The 26th annual St. John's College-U.S. Naval Academy Croquet Match for the Annapolis Cup will be held at 1 p.m. tomorrow on the St. John's College front lawn, 60 College Ave., Annapolis. Admission is free. For more information, call 410-626-2539.

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