PORT REPUBLIC, MD., AUG. 29 -- "Charge, Sir Knight!" bellowed the mistress of ceremonies over the public address system, as the Knight of Polish Power dashed down the pathway on his steed, spearing three suspended rings with his lance.

It was the 121st annual Calvert County Jousting Tournament on the venerable grounds of Christ Church 50 miles southeast of Washington, and the good knights, most dressed in jeans and T-shirts, were giving that ancient sport their all.

They ranged from callow novices astride their nervous Tennessee walkers to six-time national jousting champ and full-time truck driver Mike Virts, 34, of Frederick County, and retired auto mechanic Phil Clarke, 66, of St. Mary's County, who has been jousting since 1939.

Regardless of age or experience, the object was the same: to run an 80-yard course on horseback in less than nine seconds and spear three tiny copper rings suspended from archways at 30-yard intervals.

Prizes ranging from $25 to $50 were awarded to the best jousters in four categories: novice, amateur, semipro and pro.

The state sport of Maryland since 1962, jousting has been a popular pastime throughout the state since the mid-18th century and has spawned several tournaments such as this one, among the oldest in the country.

The atmosphere here was a breezy mix of ancient and modern with many of the 1,000 fans in baseball caps sitting on the backs of pickup trucks, marveling at the skills of the riders with such names as Knight of Little Stuff or Maid of Second Hand Rose.

Bursts of country music spilled over the cheering crowd when a jouster made a perfect three-ring score.

"It's all very relaxed fun," said Kenny Enfield, 28, a seasoned jouster who drove from rural Frederick County with his quarter horse Poco. But a lot of skill goes into the sport, too.

"You got to find a good horse and then put in a lot of practice," said Phil Clarke. "I give 80 percent of it to the horse."

The trick, Enfield said, is to get a horse with a smooth gait and then learn "just how high to rise off the saddle . . . to keep the lance from bobbing up and down when you're heading for the rings."

Riders take pride in both their animals and their equipment, fashioning their wood and stainless steel lances with painstaking care. Lances measure six feet to 6 feet 9 inches and weigh up to five pounds for women and nine pounds for men.

The copper rings vary in interior diameter from 1 to 1 3/4 inches, depending on the level of competition.

A well-balanced poplar lance tipped with a needle-like point on one end and a steel counterweight on the other can cost from $100 to $200, Enfield says.

The tournament, once the premier social event in Calvert County with a formal dinner and dance, dates back to the post-Civil War era and was originally designed to raise money for confederate monuments.

Now, according to this year's chairwoman, Suzanne Cole, the tournament, accompanying bazaar and country supper serve as a fund-raising benefit for Christ Church, one of the oldest Episcopal churches in Maryland, established in 1672.