Why Crozet: Horseshoe Champ Ready for World Tournament

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Evan Sullivan with son, Eli. Father and son, along their family, leave in early July for the World Horseshoe Pitching Tournament in Monroe, Louisiana. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

“Why Crozet” first appeared in the Crozet Gazette in January, 2019, and highlights the many reasons why people are glad to live in the Crozet area. 

In the May “Why” feature, we erroneously identified Jeff Stone as a volunteer at WAHS. Jeff let us know that he is actually a teaching assistant, and wrote: “There are so many wonderful actual volunteers out there who I wouldn’t want to overshadow in any way.” We regret the error. 

For June, we tell the story of a young horseshoe prodigy, and are grateful for the local businesses that are supporting him on his path to world champion.

Crozet is the home of the best young horseshoe pitcher in the world. Eli Sullivan pitches a ringer in nearly 65% of his pitches, a percentage usually seen only in seasoned adults.

Although he’s naturally gifted, his wins don’t happen by chance. Throughout the pandemic and all kinds of weather, Eli has spent a couple of hours every day pitching in his side yard near Crozet Park. Since last season, his percentage of ringers has doubled, he has another year of experience under his belt, and he’s come home with dozens of trophies, often won while pitching against grown men. By the time he heads to Louisiana for the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association World Tournament in early July, he’ll be 11 years old.

Eli’s a fifth grader at Crozet Elementary School, and he’s chosen horseshoes, a family pastime, over other sports that get more attention and support. In a recent video appearance, he was asked questions about his technique, his reasons for choosing the sport, and the secret to his success. Eli’s not one to waste words, and his reply––always with a smile that confirms his answer––is the same to all three questions. “I just love pitching horseshoes,” he says. Or sometimes: “I’m just here to have fun.”

That’s the key, said Kelly Glidewell, who is the secretary-treasurer of the Virginia Horseshoe Pitchers Association. Eli has identified her as both his favorite opponent and the one he’d most like to win against. (“Sometimes I do,” he said.) 

“If it stops being fun, then you’ll stop winning,” Glidewell said. She never fails to remind Eli that he needs to focus on the shoe in his hand rather than the pitcher beside him. She talks to him about consistency: “To advance in this sport, you need to stand in the same spot, and use the same motion, time after time.” Eli’s learning this and, during a recent practice on an overcast evening at Schneider Field in Stuarts Draft, his posture and follow-through were remarkably consistent with every pitch. His partners were adults, some of whom had played for years but were thrilled when they beat him. He gets a lot of good-natured teasing, but it’s clear that the horseshoe pitching world is a second home for him. 

Cadet Eli Sullivan has advanced to the World Tournament, often playing against grown men. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

In the 40s, 50s and 60s, horseshoes were a popular sport, especially in rural areas, but also at the White House during the terms of presidents Harry Truman and George H.W. Bush. “Corn hole has replaced horseshoes in most places,” Glidewell said. “It’s more portable.” The Sullivans and other area pitchers travel to Stuarts Draft’s Schneider Field, which has a number of well-maintained clay courts. Clay is the material of choice because the horseshoes don’t tend to shift once they land. The shoe itself has evolved a bit from the actual shoes designed to protect a hoof. They’re larger and with more of a U-shape. As every Virginia gardener knows, clay holds a lot of water, and there were a lot of splatters at the Stuart Draft Horseshoe Club’s most recent practice. “It messes up my shoes,” Eli complained, as he and the other pitchers did their best to wipe off the sticky mud.

Pitchers start at a line determined by their age. Eli pitches at 20 feet, but will move up to 30 feet when he turns 13. Glidewell pitches from the women’s mark of 30 feet, and grown men pitch from 40 feet. The pitchers advance in two-person matches, with each one throwing two horseshoes consecutively. The points for each pitch go to the person throwing closest to the stake. Ringers get 3 points, but if each pitcher has a ringer, they cancel each other out. Leaners are scored at a point each. It’s up to the tournament director how to measure the length of each match: either by number of points, or by the number of horseshoes thrown.

Glidewell said that Eli has an advantage besides his ability to practice day after day. Many kids in the sport get aggravated or frustrated when they lose, she said. “Eli just says, ‘Oh, well,’ and goes on.” He’s a polite child who does well in school and who cares about his horseshoe family. This year, he painted his horseshoes gold, in honor of his friend Roy Altizer, who died of cancer last fall. He hopes the bright color will remind people of children who have cancer. “Mr. Roy always used gold shoes, so I did this for him,” Eli said. 

The reason Glidewell, the Virginia women’s state champion, pitches against Eli at selected events is that there are simply not enough competitors in his age group, and an even greater shortage of kids at his level of competition. That will change at the World Tournament, where Eli’s peers from all over the world will meet in Monroe for “Pitchin’ on da Bayou,” a two-week event that determines the 2022 world champions in every class. So far, Eli’s percentages earned at state and regional tournaments are greater than his closest cadet competitor, who pitches at 43.8%.

Eli Sullivan stays focused and consistent, regardless of pressure. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

His father, Evan, also a talented pitcher, makes sure Eli has a normal life: “He does plenty of other things,” he said. Eli goes fishing, plays baseball, and is a brother to four siblings who are younger than he is, and one who is older. He has no interest in video games and instead hopes to grow up with practical skills, like his father. 

To help the large family travel to Monroe (there will be eight travelers, including Eli’s grandmother), local businesses have stepped up to cover some of the costs. Heath Shawn, Eli’s horseshoe pitching friend and general state horseshoe promoter, said the sponsorship will help them rent a van or an RV so they can all travel together. Crozet businesses have signed on: Parkway Pharmacy and Crozet Hardware are both sponsors, as are Red Line Construction in Earlysville and Virginia Quality Grow Supplies in Staunton.

“Pitchin’ on ‘da Bayou” is July 11-23 at The Monroe Civic Center. Find more information, watch Eli pitch, and contact Eli about sponsorship via the Facebook Page, “Eli Sullivan Horseshoes.”

Video of Eli pitcing a couple of perfect scores at Stuarts Draft’s Schneider Field are available in the online edition of this article. 

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