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The Ringleader: Local man is world champion horseshoe pitcher

FLORENCE, S.C. -- Clink, clunk, thud. Clink, clunk, thud. That was the sound Steve Berning's horseshoes made as they hit their mark and added to his string of ringers during the National Horseshoe Pitching Association World Tournament earlier thi...

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Steve Berning (center) with the trophy he earned for going undefeated in his class at the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association's World Tournament earlier this week in Florence, S.C. (Special to the Globe)

 

FLORENCE, S.C. - Clink, clunk, thud. Clink, clunk, thud.

That was the sound Steve Berning’s horseshoes made as they hit their mark and added to his string of ringers during the National Horseshoe Pitching Association World Tournament earlier this week in Florence, S.C.

Berning hit a career-high achievement during the three-day tournament, going undefeated to take the championship in his division. The divisions are set by a pitcher’s ringer percentage and span from A through M, with A division pitchers sporting a 90 percent ringer average.

Pitching in the J1 class against 15 other competitors, Berning’s ringer average of 22 to 24 percent rose to a 25.5 percent ringer average during the tourney to become the J1 World Champion with a 13-0 record. In second place was a man who tallied 9.5 wins and 3.5 losses (ties against opponents result in half a point).

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Cash prizes are paid out to the top six places, while the top three pitchers are also awarded trophies. Berning’s two-foot-tall trophy will find its home alongside the collection of honors he’s amassed after years of horseshoe pitching.

The Worthington man attributed his success at the world tournament to concentration. He made a concerted effort to focus on his game and tune out what was happening around him, and it worked. In four years of competing in the world tournament, his previous best was seventh place.

“I really took my time and concentrated on my throwing,” he said following his Wednesday win. “I concentrated more, and it just came around for me.”

Having his wife and greatest cheerleader, Becky, alongside him also helped.

Berning was introduced to horseshoe pitching at a young age, watching his uncles throw at family picnics.

“I can’t say that we ever got to throw at those picnics,” he said. “Dad introduced us to horseshoes in our backyard and we just set up stakes … in the back alley.

“Then it got to where we would all go on campouts at my cousin’s farmplace. We would pitch our shoes in (a clearing in) the grove. That really got me going on it,” he added.

A native of Adrian, Berning said when he and his wife married and moved to Worthington, he built horseshoe pits in the backyard. To this day, that’s where he does most of his practicing.

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“I always said it was kind of a stress reliever for me,” he shared. “It was a lot of nights just throwing by myself.”

Backyard pitching eventually led to the creation of local horseshoe pitching leagues - at one time growing to as many as 20 two-person teams.

“We had a good turnout for maybe three or four years,” Berning said, adding that players were young. As they went off to college, got married or started families, the league fizzled out. That was in the early 2000s.

There’s still a small group of older men locally who pitch horseshoes, competing in area tournaments including one on King Turkey Day in Chautauqua Park. Berning said farther north, like from Tracy to the Twin Cities, horseshoe pitching remains a popular sport.

Berning’s backyard pits are built with sand, but in competitive play, the pits are clay-based. At the world tournament earlier this week, 50 clay portable pits were used. In addition to the men’s tourney, there was cadet league play for children up to age 12; junior league for kids ages 12-17; men’s league for ages 18-70, an elder league for those over age 70 and a women’s league tourney. Pitching distances vary between the leagues, with the men’s league tossing horseshoes 40 feet from the stake.

Berning competed in his first world tournament in 2014 in Topeka, Kan., alongside his nephew and doubles partner Josh Schuck of Brewster. To get there, they first had to pitch in four qualifying tournaments - Brookings and Sioux Falls, S.D., and Mankato and another tourney closer to the Twin Cities.

Since then, Schuck joined him at the 2015 and 2016 worlds in Montgomery, Ala., and St. George, Utah, respectively. This year, Schuck was unable to make the trip. A third pitcher, Robert Weaver, of Heron Lake, has competed with them at the annual state tournament, where the three of them have earned finishes ranging from first to fifth place in their division.

Berning’s goal is to compete in at least 10 world tournaments. With six more to go, he’s already planning trips to Wichita Falls, Texas in 2019 and Monroe, La. in 2020.

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“It’s kind of a nice way for Becky and I to see the country,” he said. “She’s a good supporter.”

Berning would like to see a renewed interest in horseshoe pitching, and suggests that anyone interested in participating in local league play contact him at (507) 360-0516.

Related Topics: FLORENCE
Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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