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Army-Navy has nothing on this game

Sports Illustrated said there's "no parallel in intercollegiate sports." But we're not talking Ohio State-Michigan, Harvard-Yale or Alabama-Auburn. They'll be dressed to the nines in Annapolis on Sunday afternoon for the 27th annual croquet match between St. John's College and the U.S. Naval Academy. We're talking crew-cut Mids and unshaven Johnnies. Parasols, summer dresses and a bit of drinking, too. The match begins at 1 p.m. on the St. John's front lawn. It's sure to be a wicket good time. (Ha! See what I did there? Wicket = wicked. Sigh... good times.)

To help us understand what exactly is on the line here, we consulted with Micah Beck, the Imperial Wicket for the St. John's team. (He's pictured below, dressed like a painter, far left.)

Question: First, congratulations on being named Imperial Wicket for the 2009 match. How'd you attain this honor? What was the swearing-in ceremony like? (Was there a goat involved?)
Beck: The Imperial Wicket is basically a tyrant and chooses without input or outside help everything to do with the team in any given year and includes choosing his successor.  I was made the Imperial Wicket on our triumphant return from Collegiate Nationals last year.  The ceremony involved myself and the previous Wicket drinking beer at the same time from our trophy.

Question: When you first set foot on campus, what did you know about the annual croquet battle, and did you know instantly that this would be your destiny?

Beck: I actually visited the campus the year before I was a freshman on the day of the match. Coincidentally, it was the last year we lost to Navy. I had no idea what this game was like, and I found some people playing Go on the sidelines and joined them instead. Then my father bought a backyard set over the summer and the first weekend I was a student I was already playing.

Question: Before we talk about this weekend's match, can you give us a brief history of Navy-St. John's croquet, as it's been told to you? And as a follow-up, do you really think this history is true?

Beck: The story I heard from upperclassmen when I was a freshman was that there was a bar fight in a little place on Maryland Ave. called the Little Campus between some Johnnies and some Midshipmen. Whatever happened that night led eventually to an official challenge to the Naval Academy and the rest is history.  Consequently, we've been winning the bar fight ever since. As to whether or not it is true, I did meet an alum from the early 80's who said that he was at the Little Campus when the fight occurred, but didn't remember it very well.

Question: What has your training schedule been like? And how do you prepare strategically?

Beck: We play too often to practice.

Question: Can you give us an idea of what kind of pressure you and your teammates feel? Is this all anyone on campus is talking about? The Johnnies have been quite successful in recent years; what do you suppose happens if you fall to the Mids on Sunday?

Beck: Well, I lost last year (but St. John's won), so I have had a very difficult time concentrating in class this past week or so. It is all that I'm thinking about. If the Navy wins, than the 2000's will be the first decade in which they won more than twice. We're not going to let that happen.

Question: One of the best parts about the annual match is the unveiling of the Johnnies' team uniform. In past years, it's been inspired by Bruce Springsteen and even Napolean Dynamite. Any hints on what we should expect this year?

Beck: No.

Question: Well, we know what the Mids will be wearing: spotless white attire and nicely shined shoes that look like a Tommy Hilfiger Navy-inspired ad campaign. What, in your opinion, is their exact problem?

Beck: If by problem you mean that they haven't won very much, I think the main reason is that in addition to being full-time students like us, they also have to train to be in the military, and we just have so much more time to spend on a Friday afternoon playing this game.

Question:  St. John's and the Naval Academy are separated by just one street in Annapolis; how much mingling goes on between the two students, and do you think the Mids take the annual croquet match as seriously as St. John's students?

Beck: We don't mingle very often, or at least I have only mingled with them over this game. Which, by the way, is a great reason to have this game, because it is always enjoyable to hang out with these guys. I think they don't take the game as seriously, given their other duties and the abundance of other varsity sports at their school.

Question:  St. John's loves the Great Books. In your studies, have you come across many veiled (or perhaps overt) references to croquet?

Beck: I think the best way that croquet has snuck into the program is in the laboratories. To start with classical physics (Newton and Huygens specifically), a knowledge of how two spheres interact with each other when the come into contact is exceedingly helpful to understanding principles. My favorite, however, is that in quantum physics, matter itself will take the form of a wave and diffract when passing through a slit. So, the croquet ball, going through a wicket, will shift ever so slightly and imperceptibly to one side or the other. Knowing that changes absolutely nothing about playing the game.

Question: With the Johnnies' success in croquet, why don't you guys start a movement and petition the NCAA to recognize croquet as a collegiate sport? I mean, doesn't it get boring playing the same school every single year?

Beck: We are a part of the USCA, the United States Croquet Association. This year we have matches against the Ginger Cove Retirement Home, the West River Wickets, for the first time our other campus: St. John's College in Santa Fe, N.M., the annual Annapolis Cup against the Navy, and finally the Collegiate National tournament which takes a whole weekend. I'm told that there will be over 80 players there this year from seven schools. So, we already have a season, and we play many other groups besides the Naval Academy.

Photos: Courtesty St. John's College
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