WILDWOOD — Lauren Young entered Thursday’s finals of the National Marbles Tournament with one last chance to clinch the crown.
After trying for seven years, Young, 14, of Frederick, Maryland, sealed the deal at the 96th annual tournament, winning eight matches to her opponent’s three in a best-of-15 finale.
One second, she cradled a marble between her thumb and forefinger, the spectators around her as silent as Wimbledon. The next, she was a national champion — covered in silly string and hoisted above the crowd.
“It feels really good,” Young said, “because I worked really hard for it and it was just exciting.”
She faced off across the circle against Sharon Martin, 12, of Middletown Valley, Maryland, who had a big cheering section behind her at Ringer Stadium on the beach at Wildwood Avenue and the Boardwalk.
In marbles, competitors fire their “shooter” at 13 “target” marbles arranged in a cross at the center of the circle, attempting to knock seven of them out of the ring.
Curious passersby and fans watched from the Boardwalk as teams from Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio — composed of 28 girls and 27 boys who qualified at regional events — competed.
Earlier that morning, Spencer Hays, 13, of Gunnison, Colorado, won the boys championship. Hays and Young, sitting on wooden thrones, were crowned by last year’s winners. And, as per tradition, Hays leaned over to kiss Young on the cheek.
The event ran from Monday to Thursday, capped off on the final night with a Hall of Fame event at the Chamber of Commerce in town. For many who have participated over the years, the event is a reunion. One shirt in the crowd read “1973 National Marbles Champion.”
It’s the same for the tournament’s director, Rick Mawhinney, 62, of Cumberland, Maryland, who won in 1971 at 14. He’s been here every year since.
“It’s Wildwood. Everybody loves the beach, the Boardwalk, Morey’s Piers,” Mawhinney said. “If they get here, they come back.”
That holds true for another past champ, Doug Watson, 34, of Anne Arundel County, Maryland, the event’s emcee and media specialist.
Watson played in Wildwood from 1996 to 1999 out of Green Castle, Pennsylvania, claiming the crown in 1999 at 14.
“Years ago, we had a couple more competitors, which was awesome. There were always more games for the kids to play,” Watson said. “But the competition is great. ... The group atmosphere is always positive, so that’s nice to see that growing.”
Those still competing don’t seem any less passionate about the game, even if the number of participants is waning. You can see it in players’ faces as they hunch close to the blue and yellow playing surface, their eyes trained intently on the marbles across the box.
Young trained three to four hours a night at her local park, she said.
“There was a lot of pressure because it was my last year and I’ve been working for it for so long,” she said. “But I think it turned out pretty good.”
Martin said she practiced a lot in the weeks and months leading up to Thursday’s finale, too. She was happy the winner was Young — a fellow Maryland girl — if it couldn’t be her.
“I’m so happy that she won. It’s her last year, too, so I really wanted her to win,” Martin said. “I still tried my best and gave it all I got.”
Martin is only 12, meaning she’ll be a player to watch next year. Young will be back, too, as a fan and as a mentor.
“I plan on coaching other people in my club,” Young said, “and continuing to come to the national tournament.”