In the world of pits and ringers and leaners, Crozet has produced a prodigy. Ten-year-old Eli Sullivan, a student at Crozet Elementary School, is the Virginia State Horseshoe Champion for the second year.
It takes a steady hand and complete focus to become a horseshoe pitching star, and Sullivan has both. He was nine years old when he defended his title at the state tournament in Stuarts Draft in August. And, thanks to the online tournaments that expanded participation during the pandemic, he’s climbed to second place in world competition.
Sullivan plays in the “cadet” division, a category that includes children from 6 to 12 years old. Because of the scarcity of other children in the world of competitive horseshoes, he often rises in each tournament by playing against adults. At the Stuarts Draft tournament, he played against five different adult men to qualify. “He smoked ‘em,” said Heath Shawn, a volunteer with the Virginia Horseshoe League. “He’d smoke me if I pitched against him.” Even when he knocks the adults out of competition, they all support him and wish him well. “We only compete in horseshoes,” Shawn added. “Otherwise we’re there to have fun and enjoy the company.”
Sullivan is used to playing with adults. In fact, his toughest competition can be found in his own backyard. His dad, Evan––also an accomplished and winning pitcher––is his usual partner in practice. Eli and Evan are both at the top of the Stuarts Draft League, first and second place, respectively. The two of them have been pitching together in their backyard clay pit since Eli was six or so. His father explained that clay is actually a better medium than the sand often used in pits, since it’s more likely to hold the horseshoe in place once it’s landed.
In addition to focus, strength and talent, the adults agree on another trait that helps Eli maintain his competitive edge: “He’s humble,” said his dad. “He always sees the need to practice.” It’s an important quality, said Shawn, and especially impressive in someone like Eli, who’s head and shoulders above competitors his own age and far older. It also makes him a favorite among members of Virginia’s horseshoe pitching world, which Shawn describes as one big family. His dad is proud of his ability but also proud of his son’s character: “He’s a loving and caring child,” he said. Eli doesn’t draw attention to himself, but when his teachers found out about his success, they publicly honored him at school.
Eli is strong, and uses the same weight of horseshoe as adults, typically about two pounds, 10 ounces. His father said this is a strategic choice, as lighter horseshoes might slip a bit before they’re measured. The only advantage the younger pitcher has is the ability to start closer to the pin than an adult.
Adults who get jittery during competition notice that Eli manages to stay calm and centered. “He rarely gets rattled,” Evan said. Eli himself recognizes that control of his nerves is a huge part of his success. “It’s a mind game,” he said. He avoids tournament-day anxiety by listening to music, mostly soft rock or Christian music. Afterwards he’s entitled to a little gloating and might play Queen’s “We are the Champions.” Family and friends are starting to raise funds so Eli and his family can go to the in-person world competition next year in Louisiana.
There’s something else about horseshoes that appeals to the champ. “It’s a dying sport,” he said. There are places where it’s very much alive, though, his dad said, in the Midwest and farther west. Evan and Eli and a couple of other very advanced pitchers belong to the “Swamp Rats,” an elite Crozet group that requires a grueling test of pitching ability to join. Most of them grew up with horseshoes. “It was much more popular here when I was a boy, and I remember when there was a horseshoe pit in Crozet Park,” Evan said.
Shawn noted that the popularity and portability of corn hole pitching is one of the reasons why backyard horseshoe pitching and tournaments have declined. He said the skills are similar, although the heavy steel takes some getting used to. “If you’re a good corn hole player and would like to start with organized horseshoe competition, consider joining us,” he said. “We’d love to have you.” Those interested can find details on the Stuarts Draft Horseshoe Club Facebook page, or show up at Schneider Park any Wednesday at 6 p.m. during pitching season, April through September.