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St. John’s Croquet: A Friendly Rivalry with Navy

February 24, 2017 | By Tim Pratt

Members of the St. John's and Naval Academy croquet teams play on Naval Academy grounds.
Members of the St. John’s and Naval Academy croquet teams play on Naval Academy grounds.

The wind was howling on the Severn River as a dozen St. John’s College students gathered on a back field at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The Johnnies carried backpacks, croquet mallets, balls and stakes. A group of midshipmen, donned in Navy sweats and carrying their own equipment, was there to greet them.

With the Annapolis Cup less than two months away, the croquet teams were gathering for a friendly match on Academy grounds.

The annual croquet match between the neighboring institutions attracts thousands of spectators to the St. John’s campus every spring. It’s a rivalry that dates back to the early 1980s.

But outside of match day, the team captains and other members are friends. They hang out, talk croquet and enjoy each other’s company, says St. John’s Imperial Wicket Shane Hettler.

“It’s a lot more fun if you’re playing against friends than people you don’t know,” Hettler says.

Naval Academy team captain Joe Ahearne shares a similar sentiment.

“I’d call it a friendly rivalry,” Ahearne says. “We definitely go out there to win, but it’s all pretty friendly.”

On this particular afternoon, the Johnnies and midshipmen set up courts and broke up into two-person teams. They lined up their shots, then used their mallets to send the balls rolling along the low-cut grass and through the stakes.

A member of the St. John's team takes a shot.
A member of the St. John's team takes a shot as Navy players watch.

The teams congratulated each on good shots, laughed about others and enjoyed their time on the court.

The get-together isn’t that out of the ordinary for the two teams. They play periodically, mostly on weekends at St. John’s. By match day, they know each other well. 

Johnnie sophomore Rhys Davis says he has gotten to know some of the players on the Navy team since he began playing croquet last year. Despite the competitive nature of fans on match day, that’s not present between the teams, Davis says.

“I don’t think there’s any mean-spiritedness at all,” he says.

Like most of the players on both teams, Davis didn’t have any serious croquet experience before joining. Freshman Sean Miller was only exposed to the game when his sister and her fiancé attended St. John’s.

The sense of tradition and camaraderie is what drew Miller and others to the St. John’s team.

“It’s something that has been an integral part of the St. John’s experience, and it’s something I couldn’t see myself not being a part of,” Miller says.

The Navy team also had little croquet experience before joining. Now that their team is set, members play with a sense of pride, says Navy junior Jake Priester.

Like the Johnnies, Priester enjoys the competition—on match day and the occasional get-togethers in between.

“We’re friends out here,” he says.

Members of the Naval Academy and St. John's croquet teams hang out at the Academy during a friendly match.
Members of the opposing teams watch a match together.

According to legend, the rivalry began in 1982 when the commandant of the Naval Academy was speaking with St. John’s freshman Kevin Heyburn and remarked that the midshipmen could beat the Johnnies in 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.

St. John’s has won the Annapolis Cup 27 out of 34 matches; the midshipmen have taken the trophy seven times.

The Annapolis Cup is scheduled for April 22 on the St. John’s campus.