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A DREAM DEFERRED: TEAMS REFLECT ON THEIR JOURNEY TO THE 2020 NATIONAL INTERCOLLEGIATE CHAMPIONSHIPS

Sep 08, 2020 12:03 PM

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Point Loma regional win
2020 Point Loma Nazarene Polo team (L to R) Pricila Villa, Addy Fuller, Molly Agee, Sydney Falk, Samantha Whitley.

While the start of the 2019-2020 academic school year held both the promise of new beginnings and the opportunity for a stellar tournament season, college life and athletics as students knew it turned out to look very different. Rising to the top of their regions fueled by a competitive fire for polo and collegiate pride, 10 total intercollegiate polo teams split between men’s (Cornell University, University of Virginia, University of North Texas, Southern Methodist University, Oregon State University) and women’s (Cornell University, University of Virginia, University of Kentucky, Texas A&M University, Point Loma Nazarene University) earned their place in the 2020 National Intercollegiate Championships (NIC), only to have their hopes of raising the historic trophies disrupted by COVID-19. For underclassmen the dream was put on hold while for graduating seniors the cancellation signified an abrupt and disappointing end to their intercollegiate career. Sacrificing and investing so much time and effort on the often rocky road to nationals, four teams in particular were looking forward to proving themselves with Point Loma a first-time qualifier and UK a wildcard recipient. Overcoming some obstacles to reach this point, each of these team’s achievements, both seen and unseen, and the lasting friendships they formed along the way have sustained them through the challenging times and made it all worthwhile.

Point Loma group
Point Loma Nazarene University's women's polo team and family celebrate after qualifying at regionals.

A former interscholastic polo player (Poway and Lakeside) and freshman with a vision to start an intercollegiate polo team, Molly Agee* took charge and founded Point Loma Nazarene Polo team (Point Loma) her sophomore year. Now an incoming senior, she has invested countless hours and worked tirelessly to build a competitive women’s team over the past two years. Establishing a team at her small university in Nazarene, California, Agee struggled to find players with experience to fill out the roster, landing only two (Addy Fuller, Sydney Falk) for the 2019-2020 season. “This was our second year competing, but this is the first time we had people who had experience playing polo on the team,” captain Agee said. “Having experienced players gave us a lot of confidence and we had a strong win at regionals, but also the time we have spent together outside of polo has made us a really tough team and close friends.” While coach Nicole Bankhead focused on helping the inexperienced women improve their riding skills, Agee and her fiancé Garrett Bankhead (Nicole’s son and also a polo player) coached the team together. Since all the new participants were freshman prohibited by the university from having cars on campus, Agee drove the team to practice at Lakeside Polo Club (Lakeside, California) twice a week until a university van was provided a month before regionals. Entering college with a strong foundation in interscholastic polo and three-day eventing, Agee’s endeavor to start a brand-new polo team was a substantial undertaking but one she is grateful to have experienced. “I ran the entire program and did everything you can think of including finances, marketing, finding players, coordinating horses and practices and driving teammates to and from the barn,” Agee said. Beginning the 2020-2021 semester online, Agee is preparing for the likelihood of not playing her senior year as two team members will not be returning this year for personal reasons. “All the struggles we went through, including one of our teammates having an unexpected health issue at regionals, have made us stronger, but we were able to end our season really well,” Agee said.

Point Loma winners
Point Loma's Molly Agee, Addy Fuller and Sydney Falk.

“I’m grateful for everyone sticking through it especially having a new program and playing it year by year. None of us knew what was coming up next year, but my teammates still stayed positive, put their heads down and pushed through it with me.”  – Molly Agee, Point Loma

Facing similar obstacles in the Western region with new players in the men’s division, the men’s team at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis, Oregon, is especially devoted to the sport, making a lengthy drive off-campus and doing whatever it takes to attend qualifying games. Renting a 12-passenger van, the team travels an hour and a half (60 miles) to practice near Portland weekly, making each practice roughly a six-hour commitment. “Our coach Brandon Alcott provides all the horses,” senior Joel Potyk said. “It’s a pretty hefty price to pay for every practice and for our coach to haul in all the horses.” Due to the geographical isolation of the campus, Oregon State rents horses for their games which in the past has posed a challenge for the beginner players. “Our team is comprised of three men [Joel Potyk, Wyatt Weaver, Andrew Hobson] who had never played or ridden previous to coming to college,” Potyk revealed. “However all of us come from some athletic background and have decent hand-eye coordination so we picked up polo pretty fast.” Although spending a lot of time first learning how to ride, the team struggled with riding some of the other university horses. “Cal Poly had some very difficult horses and we’d had a hard time playing in tournaments there in the past,” Potyk said. “I was expected to play a particular horse of theirs but we had a surprise for regionals which caught them off guard. We’d sent a couple of our freshman players to weekly riding lessons so in the final one of them played the horse and I was able to play an awesome horse and do well.”

Oregon State team (L to R) Andrew Hobson, Wyatt Weaver, Joel Potyk. ©Essence Captured - Lori Sortino
Oregon State team (L to R) Andrew Hobson, Wyatt Weaver, Joel Potyk. ©Essence Captured - Lori Sortino

Historically having difficulty filling the Oregon State men’s roster, the fall semester produced 20 new members for a total of 30 between both men’s and women’s teams. “Headed by women’s team captain Erin Bush we held a free ‘Intro to Polo’ clinic for potential players which began in the classroom with rules, foot mallets, basic swings etc., and provided pizza for everyone,” Potyk shared. “Then we shuttled everyone up to a mounted practice led by our coach Brandon Alcott. We also created a really nice flyer and posted it all over campus, worked with advisors in the agricultural department to distribute it to their mailing lists and did paid targeted advertising on Facebook.” Proud of the progress and effort his team has made, Potyk is hopeful to have another opportunity to compete at nationals with one more season of eligibility. “Everyone is so committed with the time put in on a weekly basis, they don’t think twice about leaving on a Thursday evening and driving all night to reach the arena at noon and start playing,” Potyk said. “It’s what we have to do to play and it’s worth it.”

Oregon action ©Essence Captured - Lori Sortino
Oregon State's Joel Potyk races down the boards. ©Essence Captured - Lori Sortino

Doing whatever it takes for the team is a resonating theme at the heart of the I/I community, including waking up early in the morning to drive to regionals at 4:00am like the women’s University of Kentucky (UK) polo team. Just beginning her college career in 2019, Lila Bennett was ecstatic to join her friend Louisa Huber from Garrison Forest School on the UK team. “We arrived on campus in Lexington, Kentucky, and hit the ground running because our team was young and we really wanted it,” Bennett said. “We reached out to Anna Palacios who lives in New York and she became our remote coach. We wanted someone who was going to invest time in us and she would send us weekly drills and we’d send her back videos of us doing them.” Starting to condition the horses the second week of January for regionals in March, the women got their string completely fit by the middle of February and were able to scrimmage twice a week. “We took an entire Saturday and clipped all eight of our horses that we were bringing to regionals,” Bennett recalled. “We were exhausted, but we were so proud that they were each in such great shape. It was so cool to see our hard work pay off with just how amazing our horses looked.”

UK men and women
University of Kentucky women's and men's polo team members.

“I would have to thank my teammates for giving me such a great freshman year of polo. I wouldn’t trade any part of the year or have wanted it to go any differently.”  – Lila Bennett, University of Kentucky

Unexpectedly losing a seasoned teammate who had to step down from the team for the winter semester, the UK women continued to prepare and look ahead to a competitive weekend at regionals. Not overlooking the importance of practicing penalty shots, each member of the team made sure they could make three Penalty 2 and 3 conversions in a row before leaving the arena. Playing an incredibly tight game against the University of Virginia (UVA) in the regional final, UK made significant and noticeable progress since the last time they played each other at the Fall Invitational at UVA even though they lost the game. “We all grew as players during the season and it really showcased itself during the regional final,” Bennett said. “After watching both game tapes Anna [Palacios] praised us on how much we had improved between those two games.” Impressing the National Host Tournament Committee after such a close game, UK was awarded a wildcard, only to have their hopes dashed with the postponing of nationals. “Emily [Dewey, I/I Tournament Manager] called me while I was in class and gave me the bittersweet news,” Bennett said. “I called Louisa [Huber] and Avery [Evans] immediately and we were elated to hear that we made it and so many people saw the hard work we put in and dedication to this past year and season.” Intending to bring their horses to nationals after how well they performed at regionals, the UK team returned to campus for the 2020-2021 school year with the announcement of the NIC cancellation in August. Fortunately for this team made up of two juniors, one sophomore and three new freshmen, they will have an opportunity to qualify once more. “We are looking forward to all the time we have left to play with each other and really maximizing our time to improve on the skills we each excel at,” Bennett said.

UK women ©Annie Huber
Louisa Huber, Lila Bennett and Avery Evans at 2020 regionals. ©Annie Huber

Reserved for only the most competitive teams, the wildcard has given promising teams a second chance to compete against the best in the country for the championship title. Qualifying on a wildcard their first year and coming back to decisively win the 2019-2020 regional final against SMU, the men’s University of North Texas (UNT) polo team has the advantage of experience and family. Coaching the team at his own Prestonwood Polo Club (Oak Point, Texas), Vaughn Miller Sr. coaches his two sons Vance and Vaughn Miller Jr., Andrew Scott and D’Angelo Lopez, a team with a history of success in interscholastic polo. “I started to play polo at 13 years old and I played all four years of high school,” Scott said. “I met the Millers at the 2016 Open National Interscholastic Championships [ONIS] and that’s the year they won their first title.” Coming off another win in the 2018 ONIS, Vance Miller joined the UNT team ready to carry forward the momentum with competitive zeal. Integrating himself into the dynamic already established between the brothers, Scott worked to play his role in support of the team captain. “As the number two I always try to get the ball to Vaughn because when the ball is on the end of his mallet he is going to work magic with it,” Scott said. Putting considerable time and hard work into practice, the UNT team made a lot improvement with both Millers receiving all-star recognition after the regional final. Disappointed about not getting to compete at nationals but looking forward to the future, Scott is especially anticipating the return to play and reuniting with fellow players from different universities. “I know quite a few intercollegiate players from interscholastics like the Klentners’ at SMU,” Scott said. “Intercollegiate tournaments bring us all together and you get to see a lot of the same people in different places you travel.”

©Kalie Roos
UNT's Andrew Scott often plays the number two position. ©Kalie Roos

Experiencing countless hours of practice, disappointing losses and celebratory moments together all while balancing coursework and social life, the men and women of I/I share a bond which transcends their campuses and extends out into the greater I/I alumni community. A common thread regardless of which team a player belongs to is the sense of family and the appreciation for what I/I has brought into their lives, existing well-beyond the four years of college. “We all get along in the I/I program and it’s a big family,” Scott remarked. “It teaches you about sportsmanship and what you might need to focus on personally in your free time and during the off season to get yourself to the next level.” Bringing together people that may never have met otherwise, I/I polo has sparked a lot of friendships and even served to introduce many new people to the sport, both on campus and in the surrounding community. Although the 2020 NIC will not be played this year, I/I student athletes already know the benefit of perseverance and will continue to push themselves and their teams to reach new heights in the time that remains. “I think the most important thing is to enjoy your time playing I/I polo because it goes really fast,” Agee commented. “The biggest thing I’ve taken from the program is making connections and developing great relationships so we should remember to appreciate every moment and the time we have with our teammates.”

UNT men take a break in the barn. ©Parker Scott

*Molly Agee is a Team USPA alumna. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.

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