VENTNOR, N.J. - What is up with this game?

Last year, it was nowhere, save for RV parks and an occasional Citizens Bank Park tailgate. This year, it's everybody's beach game.

"Ladder ball is the 2009 mushers," Jenna Gallo, 22, says cryptically, standing on the beach on the Ventnor side of Fredericksburg Avenue up by the boardwalk, the 20-odd pieces of PVC tubing having been assembled into two three-rung ladders 15 paces apart, the six sets of two balls joined by a string ready to be tossed.

Mushers is what she and her friends call a horseshoes-type game they played last summer, a word seemingly a derivative of washers and, well, nobody could really say. But there was consensus that the evolutionary nature of the beach game had landed them seriously in the throes of ladder ball this summer.

And while beach-game purists more inclined to quoits or bocce have kept their distance, at least for now, the game - also known as bolo ball, hillbilly golf, redneck golf, and a name not suitable for this high up in the article, if at all - is fast becoming as unavoidable on the beach as washed-up mussels.

"I feel like mushers was last year and ladder ball is this year," said the open-mouth-shark belly-tattooed Jon Broyles, 27, a graphic designer from South Philly and the sage of the bunch, echoing Gallo.

Actually, he was the first to say it, but everyone agreed that Gallo should be credited first. Competitive in games, chivalrous in beach-game analysis, this is the spirit of the true ladder-ball beach-game aficionado.

It also allows them to say things like, "Mule has the blue balls" - referring to Ryan "Mule" Mahlman, 28, a teacher from Voorhees, who was on the blue team - and, in the next breath, to invoke Aristotle to explain their scoring. The other team has the red balls.

On the beach late one recent afternoon, as the tide worked its way in and the sun started its downward arc over their shoulders, the Gallo group of family and friends was knee-, head- and Miller-Lite-deep into flinging balls around ladder rungs.

"Middle is the hardest to hit," Jarrod Holzman, 27, of South Philly, was saying, explaining why - unlike some versions of the game, in which if your two balls at each end of a string wraps around the top rung, you get the highest score (3) - these guys were scoring the middle rung highest. (The goal is to reach 21 without going over. They scored the top rung 1 point, the bottom 2.)

"Didn't a philosopher say that?" Holzman, a shark-tooth-necklace-wearing federal correctional officer asked, suddenly going deep. "Find the medium."

Broyles, standing next to him but on the other team, tried to be helpful: "It was a South Philly philosopher - Rizzo."

"It was Fumo," Holzman replied.

Actually, it was Aristotle, who counseled, "Everything in moderation."

So, ladder ball has deep philosophical resonance for you, Jarrod?

"Absolutely," he said. "This is how I meditate, actually."

An Aristotle-quoting correctional officer from 13th and Wolf finding his inner zen flinging balls underhand on a Jersey beach as the sun headed for the horizon? This game may have more going for it than purists clinging to their quoits give it credit for.

Indeed, our heroes on the Fredericksburg beach, celebrating the 28th birthday of Jenna's brother, Lenard (pronounced le-NARD) Reneiri, with a stay at the Reneiri beach house, played their series of games to killer finishes every time. The teams of two stand across from one another, behind a ladder, taking turns with three tosses.

You can't go over 21, so you have to finesse the finish. In one memorable finish, John "Donx" Gallo had a chance to get the win, but he hit the middle and went over. In another, Holzman, having to fling his last set of balls after his team had already hit 21, sent them soaring into beach airspace, to make sure he would not go over.

One game, they went into overtime, which means they had to play a mini game to 11 points. Another time, one team hit 21 only to see that ball knocked off by the other team's next toss.

The heartbreak play is when the string wraps itself around the rung you need, then drops to another one or, horribly, to the sand. "Are you kidding me?" Matt Henneke said as that happened yet again. "Every time."

If you knock your opponent's balls off the rung, their points don't count - and, also, you get to make jokes about knocking your opponent's . . . well, you get it.

It all seems very Jersey, what with our compulsion to overbuild at the Shore. No longer is it enough to bring a couple of paddles and a ball, or stakes and quoits, or, moving up the complication factor, a set of bocce balls, a homemade bean-bag-toss game in Eagles black-and-green, or the Eagles washer- in-the-coffee-can game, let alone a Frisbee or a football. Now, people have to construct a three-level game, which sells for $29.99 to $49.99 and which, by the way, is out of stock at Amazon.com.

"For me, being competitive with my friends is the best time you can have on the beach," said Broyles, and it seemed like he meant it.