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EARLY LEAD EARNS ICONICA JOE BARRY MEMORIAL, DESPITE IMPRESSIVE COMEBACK PERFORMANCE FROM BTA

Jan 24, 2023 4:44 PM

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2023 Joe Barry Memorial Champions: Iconica - Maureen Brennan, Peke Gonzalez, Lucas 'Luckitas' Criado Jr., Santos Merlos.
2023 Joe Barry Memorial Champions: Iconica - Maureen Brennan, Peke Gonzalez, Lucas 'Luckitas' Criado Jr., Santos Merlos.

On Sunday, January 22, the Joe Barry Memorial culminated in an excellent match between undefeated Iconica (Maureen Brennan, Mariano ‘Peke’ Gonzalez, Lucas ‘Luckitas’ Criado Jr., Santos Merlos) and BTA (Kelly Beal, Ignacio ‘Nachi’ Viana, Jesse Bray*, Steve Krueger*). A match defined by momentum, Iconica’s early synergy withstood a second half comeback from BTA, a formidable effort that included eight unanswered goals. Iconica’s tenacity despite BTA’s second half success ultimately helped the team capture the title for the first time with a 12-11 win. The Joe Barry Memorial also served as the first leg of the brand-new Florida Circuit 16-Goal Super Series, thus guaranteeing Iconica the first spot in the Championship tournament which will take place in April.

Consistently outscoring their competitors, Iconica ended bracket play with a perfect 3-0 record, despite starting without Criado in the first game (substituted by Federico ‘Fefu’ Panzillo). Iconica met Old Hickory Bourbon in the semifinals handily riding away with a 13-7 victory. Entering the title match, Iconica’s Merlos was the second highest scorer of the tournament with 26 total goals and the second highest number of penalty goals, at 14.

Iconica's Santos Merlos narrowly edges BTA's Ignacio 'Nachi' Viana for possession.
Iconica's Santos Merlos races ahead of BTA's Ignacio 'Nachi' Viana for possession.

Like Iconica, the Texan organization navigated uncertain terrain in their first game, yet still landed in the win column, as Digvijay ‘Dig’ Singh substituted for team owner Beal. A rematch of their only loss, BTA met La Fe in the semifinals in what many have referred to as the game of the season (so far), escaping with a narrow 13-12 advantage to advance to the final. Entering the championship match, BTA’s Jesse Bray held the second highest number of field goals throughout the tournament with 16. He also entered the final as the most accurate shooter, averaging 55.2% of shots made.

Lucas 'Luckitas' Criado Jr. contributed four goals in Iconica's victory, including two in the first half.
Lucas 'Luckitas' Criado Jr. contributed four goals in Iconica's victory, including two in the first half.

Three combined goals from Criado and Merlos put Iconica in a great leading position in the opening chukker, with BTA’s only response coming from Viana on a successful Penalty 2. Iconica continued to dominate the first half. Three goals from Gonzalez, two from Merlos, and another from Criado kept the team in black firmly in control, resulting in a substantial 9-3 advantage for Iconica. Working effectively and efficiently the entire first half, Brennan shared, “BTA is the most similar to us in the whole tournament, so we tried to use the advantage of putting me on one of their guys to slow down one of their bigger players to free a person on our team.”

BTA's Ignacio 'Nachi' Viana on a breakaway.
BTA's Ignacio 'Nachi' Viana on a breakaway.

Both teams re-energized after the break, Iconica continued their forward momentum with three quick goals. Now sitting at a nine-goal deficit, BTA mustered the strength and willpower to mount an impressive comeback. Before the close of the fourth chukker, Viana scored twice and Krueger added a tally to bring BTA back within six. Forcing an Iconica shutout in the remaining two chukkers, four goals off the mallet of Viana during the fifth chukker and a final field goal from Krueger in the sixth brought BTA within one goal of Iconica. As the final seconds ticked down, Bray made his way to goal, but time expired before he was able to send the ball through the posts, resulting in a narrow 12-11 win for Iconica.

Iconica's Mariano 'Peke' Gonzalez prepares his shot ahead of BTA's Jesse Bray.
Iconica's Mariano 'Peke' Gonzalez defends goal ahead of BTA's Jesse Bray in the final moments of play.

“I’ve always wanted to win the Joe Barry, it’s one of the big ones,” Brennan beamed. “I’ve been playing with the sons of all the players that I’ve competed with in the past. I’ve won and played with Mariano [Gonzalez], Sebe [Merlos], Lucas [Criado] and now playing with their sons, it’s this ‘Benjamin Button’ effect!” she continued with a laugh.

Father and son's celebrate Iconica's Joe Barry Memorial title and berth into the Florida Circuit 16-Goal Super-Series Championship.
Fathers and sons celebrate Iconica's Joe Barry Memorial title and position as the first to qualify for the Florida Circuit 16-Goal Super-Series Championship.

Crediting BTA, Gonzalez added, “They’re a great team. Today we got lucky that we started well and they didn't. After halftime, they turned it around and played amazing and we didn't. It’s a really tough team and you have to keep an eye on each player because they rotate really well. I think that’s one of the best things they do.”

For his spectacular four-goal performance in the final along with his impressive play throughout the tournament, Santos Merlos was recognized as Most Valuable Player. “It’s my first year playing as a professional here, so the first win is awesome,” he remarked. “It’s a great organization. Thank you to Maureen for believing in me. Peke and Luckitas were amazing teammates. With Luckitas, I’ve been playing against and with him in Argentina, and Peke is friends with my eldest brother and I’ve known him for a long time.”

Most Valuable Player Santos Merlos, presented by Sharon Barry.
Most Valuable Player Santos Merlos, presented by Sharon Barry.

Gitano, owned and played by Jesse Bray in the first and sixth chukkers, was awarded Best Playing Pony honors. “He's a 10-year-old Argentine gelding,” Bray shared. “I bought him four years ago as a 6-year-old from Yoko Lalor in Argentina. I brought him here and played him right away. When he came he was a little green, but he’s been getting better and better every year. Now, he’s probably my best horse. He’s very complete. You can go as fast as anybody and ask him to stop [and] he stops to zero. He’s got a really good mouth.”

Best Playing Pony Gitano, played and owned by Jesse Bray. Presented by USPA Chairman Stewart Armstrong, pictured with Tomas Dolores and Rodolfo Sanchez.
Best Playing Pony Gitano, played and owned by Jesse Bray. Presented by USPA Chairman Stewart Armstrong, pictured with Tomas Dolores and Rodolfo Sanchez.

Already looking ahead, Iconica joins the 16 teams competing in the Ylvisaker Cup, which will serve as the second leg of the Florida Circuit 16-Goal Super-Series. Eager to continue their winning streak, Gonzalez noted, “It’s great we won today, but tomorrow we have to start thinking about Wednesday, because we start against Dundas, a great team with great players. [We will] celebrate today and start focusing on the next chapter, because it’s going to be really tough.”

Watch the incredible comeback and exhilarating final moments in the on-demand video, featuring player interviews, now available on uspolo.org and the USPA YouTube channel.

*Jesse Bray and Steve Krueger are Team USPA Alumni. 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.

All photos courtesy of ©David Lominska.