Goliath Braces for David, Part 24

St. John's College student Ian Hanover, left, and his Naval Academy rivals practice last week for today's croquet match.
St. John's College student Ian Hanover, left, and his Naval Academy rivals practice last week for today's croquet match. (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

The croquet match held every spring on the lawn of St. John's College in Annapolis is a perennial inside joke. Long ago, the commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy challenged a St. John's freshman to find an athletic contest the bookish, hirsute Johnnies could actually win. And win they have, virtually every year since 1983.

But with two surprise victories in the past five years, the academy's midshipmen are turning the tables on the annual St. John's-Naval Academy croquet match, also known as the Annapolis Cup, spoiling the joke. They're practicing -- with an actual coach -- and fielding players who have more than a few weeks' experience.

What's next? No more gin and tonics on the field?

"They just kind of got it in their heads that they were going to win," said Matt Mangold, a St. John's senior from Winfield, Kan., who is his team's imperial wicket, or captain.

Today marks the 24th time the tiny "great books" college has faced off against the mighty service academy across the street for a contest some call "chess on grass," although croquet may in fact be slower.

The match transforms the lawn along College Avenue into a sea of Gatsbyesque suits, pajama-striped shirts, ankle-length gowns, sun hats, parasols, champagne and wine by the box. Some years, play goes from lunchtime till dusk. The actual game, for many, is an afterthought.

"It's a party on the lawn. Calling it an athletic event is kind of a gross exaggeration," said Robert deMajistre, an applied mathematician at Johns Hopkins University who was imperial wicket at St. John's in 1987 and 1988.

The midshipmen, who gamely shrugged off nine consecutive defeats in the 1990s, lately have taken their croquet a lot more seriously. Navy brass had tired of losing. Win, the players were told, or the academy would no longer field a team.

Six years ago, the academy brought in Anne Morris, a tournament-level croquet master from Easton, Md., who had coached a team at Smith College. She got the mids proper equipment, replacing their handmade mallets, which tended to splinter in tournament play, with $120 professional models.

She sharpened their game, built upon a strategy every bit as conservative as their crisp, white letterman sweaters. They wait for their comparatively brash opponent to make a mistake and then pounce.

St. John's, in contrast, brings a three-pronged attack passed down from one imperial wicket to the next: practice hard, play all out, drink heavily and find new and creative ways to put the mids off their game.

Last year, the team took the field to the theme from the television show "The A-Team," with players dressed in matching headbands, short shorts and "Vote for Pedro" T-shirts from the movie "Napoleon Dynamite," a display calibrated to leave the mids ill at ease. Previous costumes, always top secret until game time, have ranged from Army camouflage to kilts.

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