At 90, Marguerite Haverfield is a champion to beat on the course of grass and clover, mallet in hand.
Don’t let the pink straw hat or her bent posture fool you: Haverfield is a force along with her two teammates — Vicki Staples and Kathleen Govett — on the Jeepers Creepers team, the 2015 champions of Senior Summer Croquet League, representing the Hillyard Senior Center in Spokane, Washington.
“I play and practice with my great-grandson,” who is 12, Haverfield said while lining up the mallet on the black ball. She then took a breath, and whack! The mallet sent the ball into the side of the metal wicket, instead of through it.
Haverfield shook her head in disgust. Her teammates looked at the reporter distracting her from the game.
“I don’t play very nice,” Govett said later, after Jeepers Creepers lost to the Bumble Bees. “I like to win.”
Unlike in many sports, age has its advantage in croquet, which was born in Britain in the mid-19th century, according to the United States Croquet Association website, croquetamerica.com. Some histories contend that “croquet-like” games were popular in England as early as 1611.
“The nice thing about being old is we have years of experience,” Govett said with a big laugh. “If we don’t know, we make it up.”
Her strategy somewhat rang true on the international croquet stage this year when Stephen Mulliner, of England, won the 2016 world championships in Florida, organized by the World Croquet Federation. At 62, he’s the oldest champion in the event’s history.
In Spokane on Tuesday mornings during the summer, 12 teams of three players each face off on the grass at Franklin Park near NorthTown Mall. There is strategy, rules and a lot of serious looks. But there also is a lot of joking, socializing and stories.
“They hound me every year about when we start,” said Hillyard Senior Center Director Jerry Unruh, who doesn’t play because he’s too busy organizing the schedule, setting up the course and refereeing disputes. Currently, several Spokane-area senior centers are represented by teams.
The teams — with names such as Wicket Angels, Mallet Heads and the Croquets — compete for the traveling trophy.
The August end-of-season tournament is named after Al Brady, a former Hillyard Senior Center player who handmade all the wooden mallets and customized the heads with a strong fiberglass to keep the mallets from shattering when they hit the ground. Brady died in 2014.
Unruh said most people, especially the older generations, have played some type of backyard croquet and have fond memories of the game — or at least of trying to hit their opponent’s ball out of the field as hard as possible.
That’s not quite how this league plays. Instead, they use strategy and sportsmanship. Hitting other people’s balls — often your own teammate’s — is known as a “croquet shot” and is how players get extra shots. Those extra shots help them get through the course faster.
“The piece of advice I always give new players is two strokes is always better than one,” Unruh said, a mantra he repeated often during the morning.
The object of the game is for each team of three to get through the course of six metal hoops called wickets — that are zigzagged across the grass — and back again before the members of the other team. There are many variations of croquet.
Haverfield, who retired from the Union Pacific Railroad after 30 years and is on many boards and committees, has played since the league formed 18 summers ago. The feisty redhead also has tap danced with the Hillyard Belles troupe for at least as long.
“We won the trophy last year,” Haverfield said bluntly. She’s helped win the trophy numerous times and plans to keep whacking the ball with a mallet as long as possible.
The Bumble Bees were all too aware of Jeepers Creepers’ success.
“Watch us get beat,” Pat Moller joked as they started playing. Moller and her husband, Nels, have played for eight years
“Our kids are golfers and they tease us,” Moller said. “But we love getting out in the fresh air.”
The Mollers don’t practice, but they hold their own. With the help of substitute player Bonnie Stewart, they won the round against Jeepers Creepers.
Stewart started playing last year to meet people. She ended up substituting on the team that placed second in the tournament.
“I Facebooked that,” Stewart said.
She said she picked up the game quickly.
“The game itself is a simple game,” Moller said. “Obviously it requires skills but certainly senior citizens can all be good at it. Maggie [Haverfield] is a perfect example. Just about anybody can have a good day at croquet.”
As Haverfield lined up another shot, teammate Staples — who recently moved and drives 2 1⁄2 hours from Princeton, Idaho, to play each week — coached Haverfield to spit on her palms to improve her grip. Haverfield usually wears gloves but forgot them this day.
Haverfield licks both hands and rubs them together. She tightly griped the mallet and swung. Crack! The ball sped through a thick clump of clover and in line with the next wicket.
“Yeah,” Staples cheered. “See, the spit is it.”