Spirits of horseshoe competition rings true for father-son players

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By John Bernhardt
It’s part of a family history, a tradition passed down from father to son and then again to his son. Like playing catch in the back yard, pitching horseshoes is a great American father/son activity. That’s the way it’s worked in the VanValkenburgh family for at least three generations.
“I started throwing horseshoes when I was a little kid,” said Jack VanValkenburgh when recalling how he got his start playing the sport. “My Dad loved throwing horseshoes.”

Years later when Jack was a man and throwing shoes in the back yard, in a campground tournament, or at a community function where the men gathered, it was Jack’s son, Adam, who watched and learned.

“Dad always played for recreation. I’d watch him throw in a campground tournament and win the first-place prize. It always inspired me and made me think that someday maybe I’d like to do that,” Adam explained.

These days, the two VanValkenburgh men, father and son, enjoy their passion for the sport and perhaps a little familial competitiveness squaring off in competitive play at National Horseshoe Pitchers’ Association tournaments.

Adam’s chance to throw came when he was hired as a physical education teacher at Andes Central School. At ACS, Adam met Laurie Day. Laurie and her husband, Bill, are passionate pitchers who throw in the Delaware Horseshoe League. Guys like Pat Armstrong and George Harageones joined the chorus encouraging Adam to give throwing shoes a try. Once he did, Adam was hooked.

Into the spirit
In the spring of 2007, Adam joined the Andes Hotel team competing with 11 other local teams in the Delaware Horseshoe League. Matches were head-on competitions between two teams with a minimum of six throwers on a team. Team captains determined the pairings with a match comprising 12 doubles games. Games were decided when the first team reaches 21 points with ringers earning three points and closest to the pole awarded a solo tally. Total wins for each team in every match were accumulated to determine the standings.

Adam had a blast. The meets were competitive, yet social. When Jack saw how much Adam was enjoying the sport he loved, he started attending some of Adam’s matches, met the pitchers and decided he might like to give competitive throwing a try. The following spring, Jack joined the Hidden Valley Inn team. For the VanValkenburgh family it was “Game On.”

Times are changing
In the beginning, Jack often had the upper hand when dad and son were paired against one another. Friendly barbs went back and forth between the two.

“You have no control over who you play, but when we played his team I always wanted to get matched up against him, “ Adam laughed. “I always enjoyed the challenge and wanted to compete and prove to myself that I could throw just as well as him.”

For Jack’s part, even when Adam’s team prevailed, he rarely gave ground. He’d kid Adam that he had to let him win once in a while just to make sure he didn’t lose interest in the game.

Taking the lead
Late in the summer of 2008, the playing field shifted for both VanValkenburghs when they began entering New York State Horseshoe Pitchers’ Association Tournaments. Pitchers are administered a 100 shoe test to establish a proficiency baseline to determine tournament classifications. A ringer percentage is kept. Adam entered throwing ringers 27 percent of the time, his Dad one percentage point higher.

New York Association matches are an entirely different animal. Pitchers compete in classes with eight throwers in head-to-head competition using a round-robin format with each pitchers win-loss record determining the final seeding. A match is a 40-shoe affair and total score wins. In the case of ties, each pitcher’s ringer percentage is considered in breaking the tie unless it’s for first place. A 20-shoe playoff breaks a tie to determine the champion.

Because Jack and Adam’s ringer percentages were nearly identical in that first year, they almost always competed in the same class.

Head-to-head
“We’ve been paired against each other more times than not in a New York State tournament,” Adam explained.  In 2009 Adam and Jack traveled with Pat and Janice Armstrong to Springfield, IL where the men competed in the world tournament. The father/son pair continue to battle in state tournaments every spring and summer.

Over the years, a role reversal of sorts has taken place. A new job cut back on Jack’s available time to practice, and Adam has become a dedicated student to the sport, even serving as the tournament director for three winter New York State tournaments at the Barn in Andes.

“Pitching shoes is very mechanical. It’s a closed skill,” notes Adam. “Repetition using the correct technique is everything. I’ve played so much I’m starting to recognize when and how my mechanics break down, so I can correct them.”

Ringing success
That practice has seen Adam’s ringer percentage rise to 39 percent, often placing him in a different class than his dad. For his part, Jack takes all that in stride.
“Adam’s not too bad throwing shoes. He’s very competitive and when he gets behind he really buckles down,” Jack said when describing his son’s pitching success. “When we first started I had the advantage, but now that he’s been throwing for a bit, he’s come up and he’s a little bit above me.”

Listening to Jack and Adam you get a sense how much throwing shoes together means to each man. Sometimes the best moments for fathers and sons are when they’re engaged in activities side-by-side, and throwing horseshoes is an American pastime that has brought dads and their sons together for more than a century.

When Adam returns home to Gilboa to visit the family and it’s a nice day outside, you can almost bet at some point Jack will be heard asking Adam something like, “Hey, you want to get beat again?”A “Let’s Go!” is all that’s needed and the horseshoes are ringing the air yet one more time.