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WICKET GAME FACULTY, STUDENTS AT CSUN INDULGE IN CREATIVE CROQUET.

Byline: Lisa M. Sodders Staff Writer

NORTHRIDGE - The lawn is littered with leaves, and squirrels sometimes chase the balls, but on Fridays at 1 p.m., a grassy courtyard at California State University, Northridge, becomes a temporary battlefield.

Armed with mallets and sporting colorful floppy hats that match their wooden balls, a group of math professors play croquet, the lawn game invented in Ireland and perfected in Britain during the mid-19th century.

But despite the game's well-bred roots, players say the sport is not designed for the meek.

``It pretends to be a genteel game, but actually, it's quite vicious,'' said math professor Joel Zeitlin, sporting a blue fisherman's hat with an upturned brim.

The professors began playing last spring, led by math professor Bill Watkins, who owns a croquet set. Since then, the weekly gatherings have become a chance to swap ideas, discuss classes and other topics outside the lecture hall.

The group has also drawn the attention of students, faculty and staff. Last week, campus President Jolene Koester mentioned the croquet players in her annual convocation address.

And one passer-by once called out, ``Where are your flamingos?'' a reference to the croquet game in ``Alice in Wonderland.''

That they have a nice green sward to play on - the Sierra Quad, just south of the Oviatt Library - is testimony to extensive landscaping work the university underwent recently, several years after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, math professor Mark Schilling said.

As a result, the professors said they've noticed students seem to spend more time on campus after classes.

``This is now the center of campus, where we didn't have a center before,'' said Schilling, wearing a yellow cap.

On Friday, the players included math professor Michael Neubauer, assistant math professor Bernardo Abrego, assistant math professor Silvia Fernandez and Elianna Ruppin, a 23-year-old math major from Los Angeles.

Abrego and Fernandez, who are married, have taught at CSUN for the past two years and are still mastering the finer points of the game.

``We're trying to figure out the right strategy. Sometimes waiting in the back seems to be a good thing,'' said Abrego, wearing a fluorescent green hat.

The version the professors play involves nine metal hoops called wickets, and two posts. Using a three-pound wooden mallet, each player must send his ball through each of the wickets in order. Some versions of croquet rely on a point system; at CSUN, the first player through all the wickets who hits the wooden stake at the end wins.

The winner - usually Watkins - buys the coffee, Zeitlin said.

``Watkins is sort of the resident shark,'' he said. ``He's not here today. We really miss him.''

If a player sends his ball through the wicket, he gets an extra stroke. If he hits another player's ball, he gets two strokes, which he can also use to send the other player's ball off into the distance.

Often, players will deliberately send their ball toward an opponent's with the hopes of striking it to gain extra strokes and leapfrog ahead in position.

Sure enough on Friday, Neubauer bounced his ball off of Zeitlin's and, holding his own ball with his foot, sent Zeitlin's ball shooting across the grass, far away from the wicket.

Zeitlin eventually recovered to take the lead, but at the last two wickets, Neubauer again hit Zeitlin's ball, giving him the extra strokes he needed to win the game.

``We all have the delusion we could win up until the end,'' Schilling said.

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1) CSUN senior Elianna Ruppin, 23, lines up a shot during a game of croquet Friday with her math professors on the campus' Sierra Quad.

(2) Math professor Joel Zeitlin focuses on his croquet game while students pass by during the weekly round at CSUN.

(3) Sporting a yellow hat to match his yellow ball, CSUN math professor Mark Schilling readies his shot during a croquet game Friday on campus.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 21, 2002
Words:660
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