‘Congratulations!” someone yelled to Lisa Egnash as she emerged from her St. Paul home last month. Egnash quickly realized the stranger thought her snazzy white dress meant she was about to get married.
She wasn’t. She was on her way to play croquet.
Egnash is a member of North Star Croquet Association (NSCA). A costume party and a sporting event rolled into one, the group of about 85 people gets together every other Sunday of the summer to don fancy clothes and smack the heck out of each other’s croquet balls.
Uniting members of four Twin Cities croquet clubs, NSCA spotlights a sport whose aficionados have included Harpo Marx and Kate Middleton and whose enduring popularity is demonstrated by this little-known fact: The club where the Wimbledon championships are currently in progress was established not for tennis but for croquet.
But which comes first, the seersucker suit or the sport?
“Playing croquet is a really fun, civilized way to spend an afternoon, especially if you love history and sportsmanship,” said Lisa Swan, a two-year veteran of the game who wore a flapper dress. Nearby, Jeannie Holmes sported a legit wedding dress.
“We do try to look our best for match days and events. In general, we try to be in white and we always support people who want to take things a step further,” said Sean Ryan, steward of the association and partner of its founder, Ed Piechowski. “For big event days, we ask people to have a ‘stop traffic’ outfit.”
The North Star Croquet Association does stop traffic twice a season: opening day and closing day, when they parade in costume from the University Club, which sponsors a croquet team, across Summit Avenue to neighboring Summit Overlook Park.
Matches are played there under the gaze of the enormous New York Eagle statue, which commands a view of the Smith Avenue High Bridge and Mississippi River bluffs. With those blazing white costumes and that panoramic view, NSCA matches attract lots of attention from drivers and pedestrians.
“I know as much about croquet as I do about cricket. However, there’s something delightful about watching these people have so much fun, about the whole communal aspect,” said Jon Limbacher, who often pauses to watch the group while strolling with his wife, Patty. “There aren’t so many communal experiences anymore. People are always on their devices.”
Unplugging is one reason to enjoy the game, as is nostalgia.
Competitive croquet is like the game you played as a kid except there’s more strategy and there are no buggy rides. (You’re not allowed to stick your foot on your own ball and whack it to send an opponent’s neighboring ball careening off the course, although there are legal ways to do that.) Also, the equipment is adult-sized and it can be pricier than the sets you find at garage sales for 10 bucks.
Whether players own $400 mallets or more reasonable models (or rent a mallet from the club), there are many advantages to the 160-year-old sport.
“It’s a low-impact game, for people who are moving on after playing golf or tennis. Kids can play it, but you can play in your 80s or 90s, even. And men and women play on equal footing,” said Ryan.
Players have croqueted at the University Club, where Ryan and Piechowski are members, for more than 100 years. But its popularity had waned by 2014, when the couple tried to resuscitate the activity they’d enjoyed playing in their backyard.
Turns out that Piechowski — who spent most of opening day of the 2018 season walking up to passers-by and saying, “I’m Ed. Can I get you a lemonade or iced tea?” — is a persuasive ambassador.
“This is how I met my friend Ed,” says Swan, who connects her love of the game to her appreciation for the Jazz Age, when the game enjoyed a resurgence. “He walked up to a group of us at the University Club and said, ‘Can I sign you up for croquet?’ I said, ‘May I wear a hat?’ He said, ‘I insist.’ And we were in!
“I went from being a shy person who didn’t have much social life outside of work to having more things to do than I could ever imagine.”
Same story for the club’s youngest member, Sonny Sawansuk, 21, who met Ryan and Piechowski at the University Club’s Christmas ball.
“Ed basically roped me into it. I was skeptical at first, but I can confidently say it has been the best decision I’ve made since becoming a member at the University Club,” said Sawansuk, a student at University of Minnesota. “When I joined the University Club in 2015, I didn’t have a lot of people I knew. I would come to do homework and leave. But since joining the croquet team, the club has turned into more of a second home. Any time of day I come in, I will know people.”
Despite its name, the North Star Croquet Association isn’t just for croquet; members get together for events throughout the year. Some are team-related, such as winter play on artificial turf or dancing the Charleston in formation with mallets over their shoulders in this summer’s Grand Old Days parade (they won a trophy). And some are not, such as attending a gala last year at Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Although he’s a relative newbie, Sawansuk plays at the highest level of competition, dubbed Out for Blood (the others are Somewhere in the Middle and Strictly Social). He’s also one of two wicket masters, meaning he arrives early to set up the course, and he coaches new players, who can sign up for lessons that begin each April.
“I generally play with the new players, or players who want more development. I’ll be there to help them aim and adjust their technique,” said Sawansuk, who has worn through three white suits in as many years in the croquet club.
Sawansuk plays for the University Club, which competes against the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis, St. Paul Athletic Club and the 1006 Society (there also are clubs in Brainerd and Edina). The rules aren’t hard to grasp, he said, but the complexity of the game is increased by tricky techniques, including eye-popping jump shots where the ball takes flight.
Ryan has been studying the game’s technique for 10 years.
“For me, the hardest part is mastering the strategy but, for some people, it’s probably keeping one hand on your iced tea and the other hand on your mallet at the same time,” said Ryan.
Despite its genteel appearance, competition at NSCA — which next plays July 22 — can get cutthroat. There was swearing at the season opener and the cheering sections, one led by Egnash, were raucous (“It’s all right, it’s OK, you’re going to lose to us anyway”). Play proceeded at a stately pace until an aggressive series of late hits by the St. Paul Athletic Club’s Liam Hunt powered a come-from-behind win over University Club.
Some would say the club also is aggressive in its clothing preference. Members rock white way past the once-traditional Labor Day guideline. Despite making a living in the fashion industry, Swan couldn’t care less.
“We don’t mind,” said Swan, who co-owns Carlisle Showroom in White Bear Lake. “We live in Minnesota. We’ll extend summer as long as we can.”
For NSCA, that means right up until the final weekend of competition in October. That’s when they ditch the whites for funeral wear and say goodbye to the season by parading, accompanied by a mournful accordion, in basic black.