Lords of the Ringers

"Every Tuesday evening a clamor of clanks permeates a small section of South Kitsap Community Park.Between the skateboard park and softball fields lies a small plot of land developed for passionate horseshoe pitchers.Although it's thought of as a backyard sport, a dedicated group of pitchers congregates at the Kitsap County Horseshoe Club Tuesdays in Port Orchard and Thursdays in Silverdale for fun evenings of competition.The objective of the game is to pitch horseshoes from 40 feet around or near the stake. This is called a ringer.The best pitchers in the world have a ringer percentage between 80 and 85.In order to qualify for the world championships, pitchers must play in a number of tournaments and conclude with a high ringer average.Quietly, the county club has produced some of the state's best pitchers. Of its 30-plus members, seven have high enough ringer averages to compete at the NHPA world championships in Bismarck, N.D., in late July.The county's two highest ringer averages belong to Herb Criss of Bremerton and Art Sperber of Chico - both hovering at a 66 ringer percentage.Criss has tossed shoes for 45 years and has nine state championships and one world senior championship to show for it.Despite his accomplishments, Criss continues his passion with a constant verve.It also helps to have competition from fellow club members such as Port Orchard's Bob Clark and Glen Heistand, as well as Sperber.Oh yeah, I want to win, Criss said. Ask Art. Even in practice, neither one of us want to lose. There's a guy on the east side of the state now and we better get going if we're going to beat him. He's going to be tough.Sperber won back-to-back state championships in 1997 and 1998. But more impressively, his wife Carol has won the last three women's state championships to make them the first husband-wife duo in Washington to win state titles in the same year.Sperber said the feat has only been accomplished one or two other times in the nation.While Art Sperber failed to win state last year, Carol is riding her three-year reign into the state championships, which will be in September in Burlington.After years of watching her husband play, Carol said it was only a matter of time before she took up the sport.She started because she got bored watching me, Art said. Finally somebody said 'Oh, you could teach her,' and I said, 'I don't know.' Finally at home she'd go out and practice when I wasn't looking and she got better steadily.Carol said it was a natural progression that led her to being a player and not just a player's wife.We started going from tournament to tournament and I finally learned to keep score, Carol said. Then finally I said 'why not join him' about 12 years ago.Despite the practicing, Carol said it took a while to get used to competing against opponents because sports were never really available when she was growing up.I wasn't tempted (to play) and it took a while for me to get used to competing with somebody, she said. Learning to compete and try to beat somebody was a little different to me.Sure enough, Carol said the horseshoes brought out the competitor in her.Oh yeah, it did, she said. Now I'm able to do it.Carol said the other adjustment was being able to develop endurance.When we pitch in a tournament, we start at nine in the morning and pitch practically non-stop until 1:30 p.m."

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