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USCA PREPARES FOR SOLOMON
TROPHY AND CARTER CHALLENGE
But croquet's "bad boy" turns
team selection into soap opera
by Bob Alman


The prestigious Solomon Trophy matches pitting the United Kingdom against the U.S. will be played at Sherwood Country Club in Southern California April 7-11. Following the main event, in International Rules, there will be the one-day American Rules President's Cup tourney. The Carter Challenge against Ireland - with both American and International rules - is scheduled for April 15-19 in Palm Beach, to give the overseas players a chance to stay on and compete in the National Club Teams in Florida in late April.


Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California, has been chosen to host the most important international team event of 1997 on American soil. It's a well-tested and popular venue for major events, including the 1996 USCA American Rules National Championships. The Southern California spring weather and proximity to Los Angeles and Hollywood, with the associated social amenities, make it a popular choice for overseas players and U.S. croquet fans alike. (All the matches will be open to USCA members and the public, without charge.)

BRITS SELECT POWERHOUSE TEAM FOR SOLOMON MATCHES

The ninth edition of the U.S./U.K. Solomon Trophy team event follows a thorough drubbing of the U.S. team by the Brits in the MacRobertson Shield in England last June/July, by a score of 20-1 in the test matches. The 21-match event of singles and doubles imitates the MacRobertson in format, providing a consistent measure of performance from year to year (The Solomon is not played as a separate event in MacRobertson years.)

Although the Americans would be the likely underdogs in any team the Brits would choose, they can take cold comfort in the compliment being paid them by the trouble the CA selectors have taken to field the most formidable of teams to come and face the Americans on their home turf at Sherwood: world champion Robert Fulford, Chris Clarke, Steve Comish, David Openshaw, Mark Avery, and Ian Burridge, with Bill Lamb as team manager. In the British rankings published January 1, 1997, these players stand, respectively, as #1, #4, #8, #9, #10, and #15. In the world standings, the top five beat out all the Americans, with only Burridge at #30 ranked below the top three likely Americans.

Burridge, the most controversial selection on the MacRobertson team last year, confounded his critics by performing well for the British team, and now as chairperson of the British Croquet Association's Selection Committee (succeeding Keith Aiton) he has done well again by putting together a powerful and experienced team to confront the Americans on their home turf.

TOP CHOICES FOR THE AMERICAN TEAM: TAVES, STARK, RODONI

The American selections have not been made, but should be announced soon, despite the controversy detailed later in this story. The top Americans are, of course, John Taves, who at #22 has now displaced Jerry Stark as the top American in the world rankings, #29 Stark, and #30 Wayne Rodoni. These three were stars of the U.S. MacRobertson team last June/July in England, and since then have done nothing to diminish their stature as the preeminent American competitors in the International Rules game.

Because the Solomon is the strongest international team event on U.S. soil this year, the Americans are expected to field the best team possible to meet the Brits. A Yank victory is extremely unlikely, but hopes will be high to erase the bitter memory of the 20-1 loss in the 1996 MacRobertson by winning a number of matches this year.

To restore American spirits, there is the traditional recourse to the President's Cup, the one-day American rules aftermath to the Solomon, which the Americans usually manage to win - especially if the Brits withhold their strongest players, as they usually do.

Less important than the Solomon, but just as spirited and a lot more balanced competitively is the Carter Challenge, a six-member team event against Ireland which is held every two years. Irish/American challenge matches have been held for a number of years, but the Palm Beach meeting in April will be only the second under the new format. The series stands at 1-0 in favor of the Americans, who won the Carter Challenge in Ireland in 1995.

LIKELY SELECTIONS: THE TOP 16 AMERICANS IN THE WCF RANKINGS

In the latest WCF world rankings, 16 Americans show up in the list of the top 179 players in the world, and it is these Americans that are the most likely selections for the international events of 1997:

#22 - John TavesWashington state
#28 - Jerry StarkNorthern California
#29 - Wayne RodoniNorthern California
#47 - Mik MehasSouthern California
#70 - Phil ArnoldNorthern California
#75 - Erv PetersonNorthern California
#85 - John OsbornFlorida
#89 - Ray BellArizona
#97 - Bob KroegerMassachusetts
#99 - Doug GrimsleyVirginia
#117 - Archie BurchfieldKentucky
#121 - Don FournierArizona
#126 - Rory KellyArizona
#146 - Carl HansonNorthern California
#153 - Rhys ThomasSouthern California
#162 - Bob (Rebo) RebuchatisNorthern California

On this basis, if the world rankings are to be believed, the USCA "dream team" of 1997 would be Taves, Stark, Rodoni, Mehas, Arnold, and Peterson. But that's just a dream, because the USCA's walking nightmare, in the person of Mik Mehas of Palm Springs and Hollywood, California, is a solid #4 on the list.

"BAD BOY" MEHAS RAISES A QUESTION WRAPPED IN AN ENIGMA

The enigma is Mik Mehas himself, one of the country's strongest and most consistent players, whose case is now, for the second time, before the USCA Grievance Committee as a result of off-court infractions at the U.S. Open in Palm Springs in December. Based on his playing record alone, Mehas deserves to be on the international teams. But his reputation for vulgar offcourt behavior is profoundly disturbing to some potential teammates as well as USCA officials charged with raising funds and putting America's "best foot forward" in relations with other international teams.

In his home territory of Palm Springs, Mehas, though he denies this, has reportedly been officially barred by several private developments which host croquet clubs and sanctioned events. At one of them, Mission Hills, the unwelcome presence of Mehas as a spectator at the USCA-sanctioned U.S. Open occasioned an ugly incident which resulted in Mehas' expulsion. Mehas had not been permitted to play in the "open" event in his own home town because, the organizers said, the owners of the development would not tolerate his presence on their property.

The reaction of Mehas to the incident and the complaint has caused a second complaint to be filed, and there are rumors of a third grievance yet to be formally presented.
The incident generated a complaint to the USCA Grievance Committee, which has the power to suspend any member for specified periods, preventing their participation in USCA events. Worse, the reaction of Mehas to the incident and the complaint has caused a second complaint to be filed against Mehas, and there are rumors of a third grievance yet to be formally presented to the committee.

This chain of events follows an unfortunate pattern in Mehas' troubles with USCA officialdom: He seems unable to simply apologize and walk away; he reacts, he does something rash, and he gets into deeper trouble in his attempts to explain himself and justify his actions.

In this case, his intemperate reaction included producing and sending out to many of the players in the U.S. Open a questionnaire implicitly criticizing the management of the tournament, instructing the players to complete the questionnaire and send it to the USCA. There was no return address or indication of the source of this questionnaire, which was implied to be an "official" USCA document. Mehas has now acknowledged his covert authorship of the questionnaire.

The brawl with security officers at Mission Hills seems certain, in the opinion of many, to result in another suspension.
Following his reinstatement after a prior suspension, Mehas, by most reports, has restrained his well-known volatile temper, and generally kept out of trouble. In 1996, his deportment was good enough to survive exposure in six major events in which he turned in superb playing performances, as reported in CROQUET WORLD'S "New American Grand Prix" tracking of top players. But now, the brawl with security officers at Mission Hills seems certain, in the opinion of many, to result in another suspension.

If the Selection Committee could proceed without consideration of the grievance process, there is little doubt that Mehas would be on the team.
The USCA Grievance Committee, chaired by Rick Sheely of Minneapolis, Minnesota, must investigate and review these grievances before any action can be taken. At the same time, the Selection Committee, with Bob Kroeger as chairman, follows its own orderly process. If the Selection Committee could proceed without consideration of the grievance process, there is little doubt that Mehas would be on the team. If the Grievance Committee turns in a "guilty" verdict, however, most observers assume that Mehas will not be playing again for the USCA in the foreseeable future.

As a practical matter, insiders expect the Selection Committee to delay making its final selection decision until the Grievance Committee completes its investigation and makes a recommendation, in order to be fair to everyone involved, including Mehas. These inside sources (who have requested not to be quoted on such a touchy matter) say that there is strong sentiment on the Selection Committee to have Mehas on the team, but USCA bigwigs have persuaded the committee of the imprudence of selecting a croquet player who is "under indictment" and may be barred from playing in all USCA events if found guilty of one or more of the filed grievances.

USCA bigwigs have persuaded the committee of the imprudence of selecting a croquet player who is "under indictment"...
Sheely has been asked - by Mehas, members of the Selection Committee, and others - to expedite the review of the grievances against Mehas.. Sheely told CROQUET WORLD that he expects his committee to reach a decision by February 14, the date of the USCA Management Committee meeting.

Chairman Bob Kroeger has declined to comment, saying only that "the selection criteria of the committee will be released following their review by the USCA Management Committee" in their mid-February meeting.

Kroeger's statement is puzzling, in view of the detailed selection criteria already set forth in the photocopied letter Kroeger sent out in January to 40 of the top players in the U.S. (as judged by their handicap level) asking about their availability for the Solomon, the Carter, and the WCF World Championship in Bunbury. The letter declares that the USCA selections will be announced on February 10 - which now seems most unlikely.

"Aside from having fine croquet skills, players must represent their country well, with good sportsmanship and good manners, on and off the court."
Nevertheless, the Kroeger letter seems to anticipate troubles ahead. It says in no uncertain terms, "Aside from having fine croquet skills, players must represent their country well, with good sportsmanship and good manners, on and off the court." Most tellingly, the letter goes on to warn, "Players will not be selected if they are found guilty of a grievance filed through the USCA Grievance Committee during the past year."

The Grievance Committee has broad powers of interpretation and action. If found guilty, a USCA member could be subject to penalties ranging from a letter of censure to a suspension of membership for one year or many years. In the last five years, according to Sheely, the committee has handed down no more serious penalty than letters of censure. Mik Mehas himself is the last person to suffer a suspension of membership by decision of the Grievance Committee. In the early 90's, he was suspended for a two-year period.

Selections for Bunbury will not be made until August, approximately three months before the event.
In the letter sent to potential selectees, Kroeger declares the intention of having "12 different players" compete in the Solomon and the Carter Challenge (each event requiring 6 team members), as well as 2 alternates for each of these events. Thus, the official American selectees could number 14. Kroeger's letter implies that the four players chosen for November's WCF World Singles Championship in Burbury, Western Australia, can be chosen from among the 12 Solomon and Carter competitors. The selections for Bunbury will not be made until approximately three months before the event, in August.

(The Sonoma-Cutrer World Singles Championship in May does not figure into the USCA's deliberations on team selection this year. In 1996, Brice Jones, owner/manager of Sonoma-Cutrer, did not like the selections of the committee, severed his relationship with the USCA, and made his own selections. This year, he will do the same. One of his selections last year was Mik Mehas, who placed fourth.)

"Financing is not worked out. Players may have to cover all their expenses."
Presaging the kind of scarcity of funding that could conceivably come from a Mehas selection (if potential donors choose to deny funding on that basis), the Kroeger letter warns, "Financing is not worked out. Players may have to cover all their expenses." This would be unprecedented, as in the past much or most of the expenses have been covered either by the Croquet Foundation of America, by fund-raising efforts organized by the Foundation, or through the support of a few big individual contributors.

The selection process, no matter how scrupulously it is carried out, is almost always subject to controversy and complaint, in every country. With so many factors to be weighed, there is seldom a clear-cut solution everyone is glad to endorse. In the 1997 USCA selections, there can be no ideal result. If Mehas is selected, there will be bitter complaints from USCA benefactors, who could very well withdraw their support. If he is not selected, at least some of the players and many fans will complain that the United States is withholding just the kind of tough, spirited, never-say-die attitude needed on an "underdog" international team.

He seems incapable of following the social code, but on the court he has achieved a mastery of the sport equaled by few.
Whatever the outcome, Mik Mehas will inevitably continue to be a powerful presence in American croquet. He may never win a charm school award or be elected to the Croquet Hall of Fame. But for a long time, and repeatedly, he has tested the limits of the American croquet establishment, which, for many, is the embodiment of a genteel way of life, and only secondarily a sport. He seems incapable of following the social code, but on the court he has achieved a mastery of the sport equaled by few.

Basketball has its Dennis Rodman. Like it or not, American croquet has Mik Mehas.


CROQUET WORLD ONLINE MAGAZINE will report on the American team selections as soon as they are finalized.


 
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