In football, there's the Redskins vs. the Cowboys. In basketball, it's the Celtics and the Lakers. But in croquet, you can bet your wicket that the most titanic rivalry is the Middies against the Johnnies.

The U.S. Naval Academy and its next-door neighbor, the 200-year-old St. John's College, locked mallets in mortal combat this afternoon in a competition laden with history and tradition -- along with champagne and beer.

The annual croquet match, held beneath the giant 600-year-old Liberty Tree on the St. John's campus green, is a clash of cultures: The neatly uniformed conservative Middies facing the liberal intellectual Johnnies, whose school is devoted solely to the rigorous study of the classics.

Like many great scholastic sports rivalries, this match between a military school and an esteemed bastion of the liberal arts featured heavy doses of school spirit(s), allegations of dirty tricks, and pregame pranks, including several Johnnies sneaking onto Navy's campus to paint their school colors, orange and black, on Navy's statue of Tecumseh.

"Their strategy is to get us soused on champagne so they can beat us again," said Midshipman Bill Weber, one of the eight-member croquet team that wore Navy "yachting dress" of white slacks and starched white shirt with black bow tie. "They try to ply us with booze."

"That is a vicious rumor circulated by the conservatives," said a smiling Bryce Jacobsen, who serves as "athletic director" at St. John's, despite the school's having no intercollegiate athletics -- except today's grudge match.

"The truth is that the Pentagon can't stand losing, so they are funding the croquet team with $10,000 to buy a victory," said Jacobsen as he adjusted his white straw hat and swung his wooden mallet during warm-ups.

"That's just another liberal lie," countered Weber, a Navy junior from Decatur, Ga., who said part of Navy's strategy was to "remain sober . . . because the team drank too much in '83 and '84" when the Johnnies won the first two matches. Navy won in 1985.

Both sides' allegations were partly true: St. John's did ply the players with champagne -- but served the bubbly to both teams. "My role is to deliver fine French champagne to the combatants," St. John's senior Daniel Schoos solemnly intoned as he stepped onto the grass playing field, wearing a crimson velvet smoking jacket and carrying an inlaid silver tray of champagne glasses.

Navy's team did get new funding, but not from the Pentagon -- rather, from the widow of an admiral who hoped the Middies would rebound from earlier losses to St. John's, according to Navy coach Cmdr. J.D. Buttinger, who described his role as "bringing the pink champagne for the toast, and the red carnations" for the players' girlfriends.

St. John's, where 400 students guided by 50 tutors study Homer, Sophocles and Plato from the original texts and have oral discourse instead of final exams, fields an unusual sports team. When the team won an emotional victory two years ago, the coach declared: "This proves St. Thomas was right, God exists."

While Navy wore whites, the Johnnies favored Hawaiian shirts and pastel shorts. "We're a little different," said Steve Dean of Annandale, a St. John's sophomore who streaked his hair purple for the match and wore a button saying, "Thank You for Not Picking Your Nose."

Croquet, the epitome of gentlemanly competition, provides a good chance for two insular institutions to mix a little, said Navy senior Brian Skimmons. "In the '60s and '70s there used to be a lot of political animosity. It's getting a little better."

The liberal Johnnies could not resist one jibe against Navy, hanging a banner near the field that said: "The Best Weapon Is an Education."

After three hours of banging wooden balls through the nine wickets, which are small U-shaped hoops planted on the 50-by-100-foot field, the Johnnies prevailed over the Middies, 2-1, with Jacobsen making the winning shot.

"We won because croquet is a cerebral exercise," he declared. Then the Johnnies broke into a school cheer -- in classical form, of course -- shouting, "Arete, Arete, Arete," the Greek word for virtue.