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Photographed by Vince Lupo
The most anticipated moment of the day is the introduction of the teams. The sundressed and madras-panted crowd surges close to the entrance of the Buchanan Center at St. John’s College waiting, waiting, waiting. Suddenly, the Johnnies reveal themselves in crisp white NBA-style basketball uniforms that read “St. John’s Croquet” on the front. The Mids of Navy, always the ones to uphold decorum, appear in “croquet whites”— white trousers and white, Gatsby-ish button-down sweaters.
This is the battle gear they’ll wear to uphold a storied sport rivalry with a 28-year history. The game? Croquet. The prize? The Annapolis Cup.
“My favorite part of the day is the same as everyone else’s — wondering what the St. John’s team will wear,” explains St. John’s President Christopher Nelson. “Every year it’s a surprise and a delight.” In previous years, the team has outfitted itself variously in tuxedos, camouflage and kilts.
But the annual revelation of the Johnnies’ uniform is just one of many traditions associated with the yearly grudge match. Another is the singing of songs to open the game. While everyone enjoys St. John’s freshman chorus and Navy’s Trident Brass band, most people want to hear the St. John’s “fight song,” in which the Johnnies do a takeoff of the Navy hymn with new words.
The croquet match began in 1982 when a former commandant at the Academy mentioned to a freshman Johnnie that the Mids could beat St. John’s at any sport. “What about croquet?” was the Johnnie’s retort. He later proposed the match to a group of midshipmen in the interest of fostering better relations between the schools. Nearly 30 years later, not only does it do that for the two schools that share ground in this small city— it’s also an excuse to throw one heck of a garden party.
“This is the only event I can think of that brings the three communities together— St. John’s, Navy and the friends and alums of both as well as the greater Annapolis community,” says Chuck Trefrey, as he passes out champagne in plastic flutes to passersby near the croquet court. Trefrey, resplendent in a sailor’s cap, blue blazer and red, white and blue bow tie with a bottle of Gruet under each arm, is a former president of the Friends of St. John’s.
The popping of champagne corks is as prolific as bird song on this April day. While the teams might take the croquet match seriously, the lawn party surrounding the courts appears to be the main event. Under a tent with a crystal chandelier hanging at its apex (lit by a generator tactfully tucked behind a nearby bush), hostesses Karen Kranzer and Lisa Gorum hold court on an Oriental rug spread across the grass. They invite about 80 people each year to feast on a buffet that includes heaps of steamed shrimp, smoked salmon and caviar. They offer glass samovars filled with lemonade and orange juice, though champagne flows most freely.
“We started doing this five years ago and always said if we were going to do it, we needed to do it right,” says Gorum, whose husband is a Navy alum. “We both feel this is an important Annapolis tradition,” says Kranzer. “It’s a great way to share this area with our friends and families.”
Kranzer and Gorum, who were on campus by 7 a.m. to stake out their spot and set up, describe themselves as “event coordinators on steroids.” They love to cruise the lawn to see what other picnickers are proffering. One is spoiled for choice here. A short stroll through the crowd reveals trays of pastries balanced on tiers of wine glasses, ham biscuits, chicken satay skewers, delicate vegetable tortes… even a strawberry trifle in a cut crystal bowl.
As many as 2,000 people attend the match and if you get too deep into the reveling crowd it’s easy to lose sight of the game. The players engage in nine-wicket, “backyard”-style croquet, during which they are served refreshments by Navy plebes wearing mess whites, who stand on the field with towels on their arms, like high-end waiters. Matches can last for hours. To prepare for the rigors of the match, the teams play a practice round with the nearby Ginger Cove retirement community team. The day before the match the teams meet for lunch at the Naval Academy mess hall, where the Johnnies Imperial Wicket (or team captain) issues the ceremonial challenge to the Mids.
For Navy, the game is a brief respite from the constraints of Academy life. “I think this is more of a social gathering than a competition to Navy,” says spectator Nathan Kren, a USNA sophomore. “This is for fun, I’ll say that outright, but at the same time, we’re all very competitive and hate losing,” says David Cole, a senior from Colorado Springs, Colo., who is Navy’s Imperial Wicket.
Alex Kriz, a 2009 St. John’s graduate and former player, wants to debunk the stereotype that croquet is just fun and games. “It’s sort of like chess in that there’s a lot of strategy involved and you think several moves ahead,” he explains. “The perception is that it’s a lawn sport you play with your kids; I think people are surprised at the depth of the game.”
According to Kriz, the annual event has more meaning for him now that he can come back and connect with fellow alums. Although he quips that the day is all about “honor and glory,” St. John’s president Christopher Nelson understands the value of bringing past and present Johnnies together with their neighbors.
“This is the college at its playful best,” says Nelson. “I love watching everyone having fun, the spontaneous dancing in the crowd, the pouring of champagne, the exotic foods at the picnics. I’ve never seen another event like this.”
Last year, the Johnnies triumphed, as they have in 23 of the 28 years. But who knows which team will prevail on a spring day this year, when the two schools face off in what must be the most civilized competition in college sports.
The annual St. John’s-U.S. Naval Academy croquet match takes place April 30 at 1 p.m. (rain date May 1) on the campus of St. John’s College. For more information, visit http://www.stjohnscollege.edu.