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Duluth Horseshoes Club looks for resurgence

Amid the "tings" and the "clangs" at Merritt Park, Ray Tiili holds out his gnarled right hand and proclaims, "That's what happens when you pitch horseshoes for 48 years."...

Amid the "tings" and the "clangs" at Merritt Park, Ray Tiili holds out his gnarled right hand and proclaims, "That's what happens when you pitch horseshoes for 48 years."

After he pauses and lets the thought sink in long enough to be nearly believable, he admits he's joking. It's arthritis.

But if it's possible to mangle a hand from a lifetime of pitching horseshoes, Tiili would be its first victim.

The 86-year-old Duluthian was a charter member of the Duluth Horseshoes Club in 1960 and tossed shoes for 48 of its 52 years. But even though Tiili retired from the sport four years ago, he's still a regular spectator at Merritt Park twice a week when the club pitches horseshoes -- doubles on Monday nights and singles on Thursdays.

He fondly recalls the club's glory years at Peterson Arena, but he says the membership numbers have been down since the arena burned in December 2004.

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"When I saw that on TV, I cried that night," said Tiili, who won a senior state title in 1994.

Merritt Park is now the club's headquarters, and even though numbers aren't as high as in past years, Tiili said there are approximately 25-28 faithful members who sling horseshoes around during the season that runs May through August.

"The trouble is you can't get young people," Tiili said. "They're busy with their kids, going to soccer and baseball and rowing and tennis and golf. But we've got one young fella now who is 11 years old (Tyler Nyquist), and we've got a few more women this year."

Those varied demographics are part of the charm for club members.

"There's no other sport where you can have men, women and kids that can all pitch at the same level," said Jackie Hughes. "This is a family sport."

Hughes should know. Her husband, Dave, and son, Corey, all throw horseshoes. In fact, Jackie and Dave both come from horseshoe families and met as teenagers while pitching. Jackie's father is a five-time Minnesota state champion and Dave was second in that event eight times, a few times to his father-in-law. She won the first girls state junior tournament in 1979.

And while they and many other throwers can make the sport look easy as they are racking up ringers, it's not.

Tossing a 2ยฝ-pound horseshoe 30-40 feet is one thing, but wrapping that shoe with a 3ยฝ-inch opening around a 1-inch-wide peg is another.

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Just ask Tyler Nyquist.

"It's fun, but it's not an easy thing to do," he said. "This is challenging."

And ringers are important. You get three points for one and only one point for a shoe that lands within 6 inches of the stake.

Dave Lofquist, current president of the Duluth Horseshoes Club, seemingly has it down to a science.

"Once you get the distance down, then you try to get the turn," Lofquist said. "If you try to flip it, it's going to flip too much. It takes a lot of practice. Relax and make a nice, easy throw. Keep your eyes on the stake and throw your arm at the stake like you're going to shake hands with the stake.

"It's the same as bowling."

With one major exception, according to Dave Hughes.

"In bowling you can get lucky, but in horseshoes, if you miss, you miss."

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Contact News Tribune sports editor Rick Lubbers at rlubbers@duluthnews.com or (218) 723-5317. Follow him @ricklubbersdnt on Twitter.

Opinion by Rick Lubbers
Rick Lubbers has been in his role since 2014 and at the News Tribune since 2005. Previous stops include the Superior Telegram (1999-2005) and Budgeteer News (1997-1999). Prior to that, he worked at the St. Cloud Times and Annandale Advocate in Minnesota, and the Greenville Daily News and Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. He received his journalism degree at Central Michigan University.
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