DANVILLE — Bob Vandiver strode toward Douglas Park’s 18 horseshoe pits when the national anthem rang through the park’s pavilion speakers. Vandiver stopped dead in his tracks under the shade of a maple tree, removed his white mesh back hat and placed it over his heart.
When the anthem was finished, the three-time defending senior division champion continued to the pits to pursue his fourth straight Illinois State Horseshoe title – something that hasn’t been done in 19 years.
Unlike some in the sport, Vandiver is not a lifelong player. After retiring from TeePak in 2001, the 74-year-old began playing in a weeknight league, and entered his first tournament in 2002 at the urging of his playing partner, Frank Good.
Vandiver was placed into the tournament’s D class and finished the open, his first ever horseshoe tournament, in second place.
From that point, Vandiver knew he had found his post-retirement hobby and registered with the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA), so he could begin playing in sanctioned events.
Through each tournament, the NHPA records “ringer percentages,” or the number of times per throws when the horseshoe wraps itself around, and lands, on the post.
This percentage determines the class of the pitcher. After building a horseshoe pit in his backyard to hone his skills, the Ridge Farm native quickly moved from Class C nationwide to Class A nationwide and Class B worldwide, with three Class A state titles and one Class B world title to show for it.
But, to take home another state title, Vandiver will have to go through the raining world-class B champion, George Huntington.
The former fast pitch softball pitcher, and six-handicap golfer, made the 114-mile journey from Effingham in his RV to compete for the title after losing to Vandiver in the championship playoff one year ago. However, this year, Huntington wont just be battling the other players, he will also be battling his body.
“I’m just getting over a hip and a knee surgery, so I’m not the old George yet,” the 71 year old said. “Right now, I’m a 65 percenter [ringer percentage.] Before my surgeries I was 70 [Percent.]… I’m not my ‘old George’ yet, but I expect to be around 60 or 65 percent this week.”
After three and a half hours of play in 90 degree weather under the hot August sun, Vandiver exited the pit area and made his way to the scoreboard. While passing through the rotunda in which the scoreboard sits, a patron asked Vandiver, “How’d it go today Bob?”
Vandiver tipped his white hat with his clay-stained hands and replied, “Oh, not bad.”
A modest assertion for Vandiver, who finished day one of the two-day competition with five wins and zero losses. Vandiver also finished the day with the second highest ringer percentage at 70.98 percent, only 13 tenths of a percentage behind Kenneth Tate, who is a newcomer to the senior division and his name was floating around the park grounds as a possible challenger to Vandiver’s four-peat.
“He [Vandiver] is one of the dominant ones,” tournament director, Leo Bratland said. “But, there’s going to be a couple major challengers this year too, Kenny Tate from Newton and George Huntington from Effingham are going to be a couple of his big competitors. … Kenny is new to the elders division … he just moved up this year, but George has been in the division for several years.
Tate backed up Bratland’s assertion as he sits atop the leader board at the end of day one with five wins, zero losses and the highest ringer percentage of 71.11
Also fulfilling prophecies was Huntington, who finished the day with three wins and two losses and a ringer percentage of 62.41, just as he expected.
Today won’t be as long for the pitchers as they will complete their four remaining games in the round robin tournament. Once each game is finished, the man with the best record will take home the title. However, in the event of a tied record, regardless of who the pitcher lost to, a playoff will ensure.
If that is the case, Vandiver knows what he has to do to win.
“If I pitch too fast, I’ll lose it,” Vandiver said. “I have a certain method to pitch and if I don’t pitch that way the shoe won’t open right for me. I got to think every time I pitch. That’s the key to winning the tournament: thinking.”