GALESVILLE, Md. (AP) — The crack of wood on plastic, the ideal marriage of mallet and ball is what keeps Eugenia Wilkie in croquet.

She finds bliss when she rears back and sends a shot hurtling across the court on the perfect path, picking off a target 60 feet away.

“It’s like someone hitting a high note,” said Wilkie, a 70 year-old former ballet dancer from Galesville. “It’s like serving an ace in tennis.”

And it’s the result of a lot of practice.

Wilkie heads to sand and grass courts in south county several times a week to work on her game. She wants to improve her strategy – a big component of competitive croquet. The other members of the West River Wickets hope to do the same, because hitting the ball is merely the first step on a journey that combines the skill of chess, the angles of pool, and the ball-striking of golf.

But however much the croquet connoisseurs contend they still have to conquer, the club has racked up an impressive tournament record in its four years of existence.

The Wickets just returned from a Florida match as national champions in their division, and will travel to Pennsylvania in two weeks to defend another title.

“My partner calls me Annie Oakley, because I’m a good shot,” said Lin Irey of Severna Park, who took second in her grouping in Florida with Bill Brewer.

Erica Sherman, tournament coordinator for the United States Croquet Association, which ran the contest, said the club has good team spirit.

The Wickets, who dress in all-white according to custom, have 38 members who range in age from 21 to 88. The majority are retirees.

“My wife says I’m obsessed, but I only play four times a week,” said Rodney Calver of Galesville, the head of the club, i.e., imperial wicket. “Croquet makes me think and it’s a very, very good social outlet for me. We like to win, too.”

Their style of play bears only passing resemblance to the backyard croquet of many people’s childhoods.

There are six wickets, not nine, and the clearance for the ball is just one-sixteenth of an inch on each side. Teams of two not only have to consider how to get their balls through the hoops as quickly as possible, but how their opponents are going to try and block them. Serious players have handicaps, just like in golf.

“At the intermediate and senior levels, if you make a mistake, your opponent will punish you,” said Calver.

He uses a custom-made, three-foot-long mallet from New Zealand; others use handmade mallets from Canada. Mallets cost between $120-200, and annual membership in the club is $125.

Members said the reason croquet isn’t more popular doesn’t have as much to do with the cost as it has to do with the lack of available courts.

At the recent Club Team Championships in West Palm Beach, there were only 104 players from eight clubs. Fourteen of the Wickets took part.

The croquet association lists six clubs in Maryland, including the Wickets and the teams from St. John’s College and the Naval Academy, whose annual match is in three weeks. The Wickets typically square off against the Johnnies before their battle with the mids.

Wilkie said croquet keeps her competitive juices flowing with a little less physical toll than sports she played, such as tennis or skiing. It’s still good exercise – club member Peter Stevens said players walk about 1½ miles in a 75-minute match. “You can play this game ’til you drop,” said his wife, Susan Savage-Stevens, the club’s vice president.


Having a ball

“This is when fun begins.”

So said Calver on a blustery spring afternoon last week before a few of the Wickets started an informal game.

Despite conditions so chilly a few of the members’ hands were turning blue and a partially-flooded sand court, everyone was engrossed the moment the first ball was struck.

Calver got into a crouch before taking a shot, swinging his mallet back and forth between his legs to both practice and aim – reminiscent of golfers. The ball just missed going through the wicket. He didn’t have long to lament, though, because he got another whack at it in short order. “All is not lost,” said Calver.

Brewer played with a sense of pride.

The 88-year-old Galesville resident got the croquet ball rolling, as it were, in 2004. He decided to a host a party at his home and was looking for something the crowd could do while sipping rum punch. He decided on croquet, which he’d played growing up.

“It just seemed as a pleasant way to spend an evening,” he said. “I had a lawn and a croquet set. It sort of came together.”

Brewer’s not sure if it was the rum or the game, but people left wanting more.

So, he attended a croquet school in Florida, and the club was on its way. “We all decided it was something we wanted to do better,” Brewer said. “Every day you go out, you discover a new approach.”

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(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)