Legacy Story: Coach Thompson

A Part of something great

As Thompson’s time as head coach ends, a dynasty is set to continue for years to come.

In sports, a dynasty can be a tricky thing to explain. Ask five different people and you might get five different answers. But by almost any definition, Coach Wendell Thompson has forged the OKWU croquet program into one, securing five national championships since its inception and laying a foundation of success that will last long after his retirement.

When Thompson created the croquet program in 2009, he was already indispensable to the campus community at large, having served as the school librarian for 34 years. But he wanted more—a way to impart his love of the game to a new generation, and to give students the opportunity to be a part of something great. “I wanted to give them the chance to be a champion in something that they’ve never done before,” he remembers.

He’s made good on that promise, too. Since 2009, the croquet program has competed for 11 seasons—taking a two-year hiatus during COVID—meaning that Thompson’s students are taking home a title almost half the time they go out. Nor is this a case of a team thriving on weak competition or a lackluster conference. Thompson’s squads routinely go through top-tier schools on their way to victory: Penn State, the U.S. Naval Academy, St. John’s, and the University of Florida, among others.

Each year, the tournament takes place in Philadelphia, at the Merion Cricket Club. For each student able to participate, it’s a dramatic highlight. “It was a unique experience,” Aaron Fratzke (’18), who brought back the championship in April of 2016, says. “Everyone pitched in strategies and different styles of game play. At the end of the day, we were there to have fun and enjoy the team’s accomplishments. Everyone on that team grew closer together and built long-lasting friendships.”

This year, OKWU’s dominance on the field in Philadelphia was almost comical—all four duos in the collegiate semifinals were Eagle players. When the duo of Leina Casimir and Raelyn Gabrel won the final match, they became the first women’s team to ever win the national title, rattling off nine straight victories throughout the tournament. It would have been a milestone either way, as the duo they faced was all-female, too.

There’s an obvious question here, then: what’s the secret of OKWU’s success? According to Coach Thompson, it’s simple. “I’ve taught the students to do jump shots,” he said. “That was our big secret. The other teams, they hadn’t even heard of jump shots. And they were totally befuddled.”

It sounds simple enough—a player hits his croquet ball up in the air, bypassing an opponent on the way to a wicket—but it’s incredibly challenging to pull off, and OKWU’s mastery of the technique has set the team apart. It’ll continue to do so as the program changes hands, with Steve Fisher (’91) taking over as the new head coach next season.

As Thompson closes this chapter of his career, he does so as one of the most accomplished in his sport–and the knowledge he imparted should set OKWU croquet up to be a national powerhouse for years to come

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