Croquet tournament: hitting balls for fun and fundraising

On a beautiful sun-drenched summer day, more than 120 men, women and children were hitting croquet balls for fun and raising thousands of dollars for a variety of good causes at the Westmoreland Croquet Club’s annual tournament Sunday at the Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood .

The croquet club tournament, postponed from early June because of the covid pandemic, was smaller than in the past, but still attracted 64-two person teams and 25 sponsors, said Amy Dicesere, event coordinator for the tournament.

After having to cancel the tournament last year because of the covid restrictions, “we really had to get back to having it,” said Hempfield restaurateur Ernie Vallozzi, one of the organizers of the croquet tournament, which was started in 1990.

In a “normal year,” there might be 1,700-1,800 people at the tournament, but this year “we reduced the size because of the pandemic,” Vallozzi said.

Even with the reduced number of people in the crowd, “we’re putting money into the community,” probably around $30,000 to a variety of charities through the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, Vallozzi said.

“Our mission is to support local not-for-profits that have a mission that has to do with children, conservancy, education” in Western Pennsylvania, said Robert Unkovic, a Greensburg wealth adviser and the chairman of Old Joe Club Charities Inc. of Hempfield, which benefits from the money raised through the croquet tournament.

Through the croquet tournament that is the flagship fundraiser started 31 years ago, they have raised about $1.4 million over the past seven years, said Dr. Michael Rutigliano, a committee member of Old Joe Club Charities.

Watching from the main tent where the two-person teams were directed to specific courts for their games, David Zilli, an entertaining announcer and the Greensburg Salem High School principal, commented that the event represents “good people coming out for a good cause.”

Those good people came from near and far to raise money to play in the croquet tournament.

Jennifer Lee came from New York City with her fiance, Nick Rutigliano, also of New York City.

“We come down every year for it,” Lee said.

Among the many helpers in the tournament who served as judges on the 12 croquet courts were about 67 National Honor Society students from Greater Latrobe, Greensburg Salem, Hempfield Area and Greensburg Central Catholic high schools, said Cheryl Harper, Greensburg Salem High School physics teacher and National Honor Society adviser.

When participants weren’t competing in the croquet tournament, they were able to escape the heat and enjoy feasts and refreshments under the shade provided by some 25 tents that lined the courts. The tables of food and fine wine and whiskey make one recall the days of the Rolling Rock Races in Ligonier Township, where the horse races were almost a sidelight to the food and drink on display.

There was special entertainment at the Quatrini Rafferty tent, where the Greensburg law firm was sporting a Roaring ’20s theme with Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra clarinetist Lisa Thackrah playing music from a century ago, such as “Basin Street Blues.”

“I love to play and perform,” said Thackrah, a music teacher at Christ the Divine School in Latrobe, as well as at Seton Hill University in Greensburg.

Attracting attention was Rocky Mountain, a beautiful brown house once used by the National Park Service and now owned by STAT (Southern Tier Alternative Therapies) Inc. of Cook, which uses horseback riding for its physical and occupational therapy program. It is one of the five charities supported this year by the Old Joe Club Charities, through the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at or via Twitter .

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