Every spring, there’s an event that draws around 4,000 expectant spectators to Annapolis for "a friendly-but-fierce rivalry.” This highly anticipated game has been a famous Annapolis tradition since 1983, and it’s as much frolicky fun as it is a serious set. There are songs to kick off the revelry, and there is dancing on the walkways. There is also a large trophy to celebrate the winner. The sport? Croquet. The contenders? The U.S. Naval Academy and their cross-street rivals, St. John’s College. The name of the game? The Annapolis Cup.
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The legendary Annapolis Cup started in 1982, when the commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy allegedly told St. John’s freshman Kevin Heyburn that the Naval Academy Midshipmen could beat the St. John’s Johnnies in any sport. Heyburn reputedly quipped, “What about croquet?” This Johnnie suggested a match to a group of Midshipmen, thinking it would help strengthen the schools’ relationship. Forty years on, the friendly Annapolis croquet rivalry is strong, and both schools welcome the chance to compete. Per tradition, the Johnnies kick off the Annapolis Cup each year when they attend lunch at King Hall and their Imperial Wicket (captain) formally challenges the Midshipmen to a match.
Special Annapolis Cup Traditions
There are a number of traditions that keep the sport interesting. First, not every midshipman is eligible to be on the Naval Academy croquet sport team. Based on past protocol, the Midshipmen in the 28th company (it was the 34th when there were 36 companies) retain that honor and are known as the “croquet company.” Once they voice their interest, midshipmen in this company are selected by the Imperial Wicket. While all USNA club and varsity athletes are eligible to earn blue letter sweaters, those midshipmen playing in the Annapolis Cup are the only ones who wear white sweaters with a gold “N.” They pair these U.S. Croquet Association croquet whites with a team tie that changes each year.
The Johnnies, not to be outdone, also switch up their uniforms every year, revealing them right before the match. Years prior have found them sporting everything from Viking costumes, to camouflage, to kilts, to imitation USNA Crackerjack uniforms. Jaunty music kicks off the festivities, as the St. John’s Freshman Chorus and the Naval Academy Trident Brass band get the match started. Then the Johnnies’ uniforms are revealed and the ceremonial first ball is struck. Here’s where the serious action starts.
Both twelve-person teams work in pairs, playing in several matches that wind through the double diamond layout of nine metal wickets and two wooden stakes; the goal is to be the first side to score fourteen wicket points and two stake points for each ball. People picnic on the sidelines and Plebes in dress mess uniforms keep the players hydrated.
Practicing for the Win
April McBride, a 1998 USNA graduate who now serves as a Training Manager for NABSD Human Resources, was in the 28th company as a Firstie, and was chosen to be on the croquet team. (Pictured to the left). As has been typical since 1992, her team was able to practice a few weeks prior to the match by playing the Ginger Cove Croquet Team, made up of the residents at nearby Ginger Cove retirement community. The Johnnies also practiced against this team, and were themselves instrumental in teaching McBride and her team the game. She says, “Overall, Navy lost the year I played, but one of our teams won their match, so we considered that a big win! St. John’s takes croquet very seriously, and they are difficult to beat.” She remembers the Cup fondly, “It was fun to be a participant in such a unique event! The atmosphere was festive, full of people dressed up and enjoying picnics on the lawn.”
A Match Made in Annapolis: This Year’s Competition
The USNA Imperial Wicket Johnny Colbert, (Class of 2023) says that the midshipmen practiced more than usual in anticipation for the game, leveraging time as much as their military schedules would permit, since strong competition makes the event even better. “With a dedicated practice schedule for the future I foresee a more dominant role by the USNA team,” Colbert says. He was lucky enough to join the 28th company when a Brigade-wide reshuffle occurred in his junior year. As part of his responsibilities this year, he helped coordinate the entire event in concert with the St. John’s team. Colbert was thrilled to be a part of the action, “It felt electric being a part of such a unique tradition in Annapolis. I am glad we brought it back, especially after COVID.”
The fun continues. This year was the first returning to St. John’s after COVID, and the Annapolis Cup kicked off a newly created “Johnnie Week.” On April 15th, the two teams faced off on the red-bricked campus. The Johnnies were dressed like the Midshipmen, with letter shirts in their signature black and orange, marked with a large “J.” The weather was perfect, until lightning was spotted in the area and it needed to be rescheduled…for the next day. Everyone was left hanging with a 1-1 tie.
While the final outcome wasn’t total victory, the Midshipmen ultimately posted three wins to St. John’s four, making it a close competition. Sunday’s loss brought the final score to 2-3. Even so, this amicable tradition is a win for all. “I liked being with a group of people I have come to admire and respect, as well as the camaraderie of the after-party. Win or lose, we enjoy the night,” says Colbert. On Sunday’s croquet game, he and his partner Midshipman Carson Knight struck a deal to do a set of push ups after each easy shot they missed. That added to the stakes, and they tallied about 300 push ups too. Midshipmen never miss a chance to train.
Come Play on the Yard
The Annapolis Cup was just the beginning of a fun season. The atmosphere on the entire Yard is exciting right now. With the advent of spring and the days quickly marching toward Commissioning Week, Midshipmen are feeling the renewed sense of possibility that springs every year. Come see history in action. You can catch one of their many club or varsity games, experience Noon Meal Formation or take a guided tour. When you visit or book a tour, you’re supporting the midshipmen. Proceeds from dining, shopping and tours go to their clubs, activities and more. Visit the Yard, and feel the special thrill that is history in the making.