On a sunny late-spring afternoon, the South Side Croquet Club turned a well-manicured front yard into a genteel scene from the Victorian era.

Players were embroiled in a game of six-wicket croquet, knocking colorful balls around the small patch of grass. Dressed all in white, the participants played at a leisurely pace.

But surrounding every move was a well-thought out strategy that took foresight and vision.

“It’s the overall experience of playing that I love. There’s a lot of philosophy involved in playing croquet, a lot of different moves you can learn to do that will increase your playing ability,” said Mark Townsend, founder of the South Side Croquet Club and host of the games.

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Club members and other enthusiasts are taking advantage of the pleasant weather to get ready for central Indiana’s premier croquet event. The Wicket World of Croquet will bring together dozens of teams to the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indianapolis for a step back in time to the country-club scene of the late 1800s.

From professional students of the game to backyard beginners more interested in sipping a beer while they play, the tournament has fostered a small but growing contingent of croquet fans.

The Wicket World of Croquet, played this year on June 4, has been a tradition at the Harrison site for the past 22 years. The event was founded as a fundraiser after a volunteer at the historical landmark envisioned revisiting a day of leisure as it would have been in the 19th century.

“We do it because its a Victorian sport. It’s one of the games that was popular during Benjamin Harrison’s administration or the time when he lived,” said Stacy Clark, events manager for the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. “It’s a fun way to tell his story in a unique way.”

The croquet tournament helps underwrite field trips to the Harrison site, Clark said. More than 17,000 students come to the house each year to learn about Indiana’s only president.

“We want to keep field trips affordable for the schools in our community,” Clark said.

That mission spoke to Townsend. He has been playing croquet since he was a child, but only in the past two years has he been focused on more professional play. A member of the U.S. Croquet Association, he has been competing in tournaments around the Midwest to hone his skills beyond just a leisure game.

His ascent from enthusiastic amateur to serious player started at Benjamin Harrison site event. Townsend noticed an advertisement for the tournament, and though he was too late to participate, organizers put him in touch with Russ Dilley.

“Russ was really looking for people to play croquet. We started playing together, and he really was able to teach me a lot about the game, things I wasn’t even aware of,” he said.

Dilley, a retired physician from Fishers, is one of the leaders of central Indiana croquet and a top player throughout the country. He has competed in tournaments from the Mosquito Open in Minnesota to the prestigious North American Open at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards.

He is the district president for Indiana for the U.S. Croquet Association. But his start came at the Benjamin Harrison event in 2010.

Since that time, he has improved his own game while serving as an evangelist for croquet throughout the state. Croquet is a game with a variety of versions, rules and styles.

But the basics remain the same, Dilley said.

“The basic idea is you go through a hoop, you get a shot. You hit a ball, you get two shots. The mathematics are the same whether you’re doing backyard croquet or playing for world championships,” he said.

Townsend has followed Dilley’s lead and spearheaded a croquet movement on the southside of Indianapolis.

He has worked with senior citizen centers throughout the area, putting up fliers and taking questions from people interested in the game. His South Side Croquet Club meets every Monday and Sunday at his house, and slowly, more and more players are showing up.

“By doing this, I feel like I’m promoting the game of croquet, getting some people out and at least getting people moving around a little bit,” he said. “Getting people out, moving around, getting them excited about hitting through a wicket, that’s really a neat goal.”

Jackie Scott, a Greenwood resident, connected with Townsend through The Social of Greenwood. She saw a notice he put in the club’s monthly bulletin, and decided to check it out.

Scott focuses on staying active every day. She walks 3 miles each day, and though she loves euchre and bridge, the chance to get outdoors when the weather turns made croquet an ideal game.

“I hate the winter, so as soon as it gets nice, any excuse to get outside I’m going to take,” she said. “So many seniors want to just sit and watch TV. But if people want to get active, there are so many activities.”

Townsend has recruited people, not only to join the club but to take part in the Wicket World of Croquet event in June.

The Benjamin Harrison tournament pits teams of two against each other. Competitors are broken into two skill levels: backyard players and skilled croquet players. Each team is placed in brackets and play four round-robin games against those other teams. The games are timed for 20 minutes, and the winners are reported to a scoring table.

When the round-robin half of the event ends, the teams are seeded based on the results. The best then compete in a single-elimination tournament.

“If you’re good, you get to move on,” Clark said.

Wide World of Croquet has very few regulations. One of the foremost, though, is that everyone who plays has to wear white, Clark said.

“It’s like you’re playing in Wimbledon. You don’t have to be quite as good at the game, though,” she said.

An open bar is available to registered teams, with beverages from Sun King Brewery, Rettig Hills Winery and New Day Meadery. Crepes and a boxed lunch also is included.

“Croquet is the kind of sport where you can drink and play, which I think appeals to a lot of people,” Clark said. “It should be a fantastic day on the lawn playing this relaxing, yet competitive game.”

If you go

The Wicket World of Croquet

When: 2 p.m. June 4. Check-in and practice begins at 1.

Where: Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site

What: A croquet tournament benefiting the Benjamin Harrison site. Two levels of play are available, a competitive six-wicket tournament and a leisure golf croquet tournament.

Cost: $150 for a team of two; $140 for a team of two, for Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site members

Included: All teams of two receive four matches guaranteed, use of provided equipment, crepes, late lunch and drinks.

Spectator tickets: $30, which includes food and drink.

Information: PresidentBenjaminHarrison.org

At a glance

South Side Croquet Club

Southside Indianapolis resident and U.S. Croquet Association member Mark Townsend is starting a croquet club.

Games are played at his southside home.

Interested parties should call Townsend at 220-1805.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.