There’s your grandma’s backyard croquet, and then there’s the game as it’s played by the William & Mary Croquet Club, champion of the 2012 United States Croquet Association Collegiate Division.
It’s safe to say lemonade was absent at this two-day tourney, April 28 – 29, held at Haverford, Pa.’s Merion Cricket Club. The site has hosted the United States Open Golf Championship five times and is slated to host the U.S. Open in 2013.
“It’s a pretty cutthroat game,” said Captain Mackenzie Wenner ’13. “You’re sending your opponent’s balls far away, trying to outmaneuver the other team. There’s a lot of strategy involved.”
Several variations of croquet are played internationally, from the nine-wicket social form to competitive versions such as association and golf. Each differs in scoring systems, order of shots and layout. The William & Mary Croquet Club participates in golf croquet – the fastest growing version of the game, owing largely to its simplicity and competitiveness.
The goal: be the first team to score seven points.
Wenner and his partner, Reid McBride ’14, were one of two William & Mary teams to reach the final four, finishing in fourth place. Teammates Stuart Veal ’15 and Dixon Muller ’14 clinched the individual championship on April 29 by narrowly beating Wenner and McBride in a third-round tiebreaker. They won by one point.
“It was a very exciting game, probably the most exciting of any match I’ve ever played,” said Wenner. He and McBride were down by two points with three minutes left on the clock.
“We had to take some risky shots, and we recovered those two wickets,” recalled Wenner.
A side scores a point when one of its balls is the first to pass through the wicket – or hoop. At the collegiate level, the wickets are made from iron – not wire – and are only bigger than the ball by about the width of a nickel, said Wenner. Some wickets are as far apart as 120 feet, he added.
Precision is key and so is strategy.
“Opponents can do what’s called ‘picking you off’ – or sending your ball way from the wicket,” described Wenner. “It takes a lot of teamwork and thinking three, four plays down the line.”
William & Mary’s Croquet Club swept the competition, taking first place in both the individual and team championship. Veal and Muller beat a competitive duo from State University of New York at New Paltz, a team Wenner described as “a self-proclaimed extreme croquet club.” Oklahoma Wesleyan came in third. Other collegiate teams present included Case Western Reserve University, Davidson College, Haverford College and Northern Virginia Community College.
William & Mary’s Croquet Club began 14 years ago under the leadership of coach George Barnes, a Williamsburg resident. Barnes has lead the team to national championships in 2008 and 2009, and a second place finish in 2005. Today, the club boasts 14 participating members, including four female players. Practice is three times a week at the Williamsburg Inn during the warmer months.
“I think I get more out of it than the students do,” said Barnes, 90. He first picked up a mallet and began playing croquet while stationed in England with the Air Force after World War II.
“It’s the feedback from the students that keeps me alert,” he said.
Wenner, who started a croquet club in high school, said he enjoys golf croquet because it requires strategic skills and accurate play.
“I like the competition aspect of it,” he said, then paused.
“Plus, I’m very intrigued by a sport where you don’t have to exert any physical activity,” he said, laughing.
At colleges and universities across the United States, the ancestral game of croquet is spreading. Southern states in particular are picking up on the tactically challenging game, and the National Croquet Center was recently constructed in West Palm Beach, Fla. It’s the largest croquet complex in the world and home to the new U.S. Croquet Association.
Although there’s not a lot of local play yet, said Wenner, efforts are being made by a few schools to create what would be the beginning of a league.
Could future rivals be located within the state of Virginia, willing to take on the national champs? Perhaps so. A picture of the newly formed University of Virginia croquet team is featured on the Unites States Croquet Association collegiate website.