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ULTIMATE REDEMPTION: FLORIDA RAISES THE CECIL SMITH CUP

Jan 15, 2021 10:50 PM

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2020 NYTS Champions- Florida Region- Landen Daniels, Hope Arellano, Jack Whitman, Finn Secunda.
2020 NYTS Champions- Florida Region- Landen Daniels, Hope Arellano, Jack Whitman, Finn Secunda.

Both teams claiming a decisive win in their respective semifinal matchups, Florida (Finn Secunda, Jack Whitman*, Hope Arellano*, Landen Eckbo Daniels) challenged defending champions Eastern Region (Sophie Grant, Hunter Van der Burgt, Winston Painter*, Aiden Meeker) in the 2020 National Youth Tournament Series Championship® Final. Played Friday, January 15 (postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), on the U.S. Polo Assn. Field 1 at the International Polo Club Palm Beach (Wellington, Florida), the final saw Florida assume early control of the game and earn the trophy 10.5-4 in their home region.

“I was very impressed with the competition this year. All the teams have a special talent and the tournament gets better every year. All the participants have improved over the years and its resulted in a faster-paced game.”  – Carlucho Arellano, USPA Executive Director of Services

Florida Region's Hope Arellano hooking Eastern Region's Sophie Grant.
Florida Region's Hope Arellano hooking Eastern Region's Sophie Grant.

As the highest rated player on the field, Florida team captain Arellano opened the first with a run to goal within the first minute of play. Scoring almost immediately after, Secunda sprang into action with a neckshot to goal, setting the tone for the remainder of the game. Continuing to extend their advantage in the second chukker, Florida added three additional goals in the second which landed all team members on the scoreboard. Unable to rally a successful offensive attack, Eastern was rendered scoreless in the first half. Establishing a comfortable lead, Florida entered halftime up 5.5-0.

As the competition intensified in the second half, fouls in the third chukker in favor of Eastern slowly allowed the team to chip away at the deficit. Converting two penalty shots, Painter broke the silence for his team on Pérsico. Florida retaliated with two impressive field goals to claim the 7.5-3 lead, Arellano first making a run on a complete breakaway followed by Secunda who took out Painter with a superb display of horsepower. Entering the fourth and final chukker, Florida did not let up on the gas, Whitman scoring back-to-back goals. Descending on the green team’s goal posts, Whitman’s initial shot was blocked by Meeker, but Arellano was in position to pick up the third goal of the chukker. Although Grant finished play off with a strong goal, Florida ultimately won the title 10.5-4. “It was really nice to see everybody working together,” Daniels said. “Throughout the entire game we focused on playing our positions and holding our man.”

A true rematch, five players representing both Eastern and Florida teams were in the final last year. Falling just short of the 2019 trophy with a 6-5 defeat, Florida’s Whitman, Daniels and Arellano were especially motivated to not let the 2020 title escape from their grasp. “It's so nice to finally get a win, it feels amazing!” Daniels exclaimed. “This is my fourth year playing so it's really nice.”

Eastern Region's Winston Painter lining up a penalty shot.
Eastern Region's Winston Painter lining up a penalty shot.

Although only 13-years-old, Secunda more than held his own and played with a maturity well beyond his years. “Finn is amazing, he is such a shredder on the field and a sweetheart off the field,” Arellano shared about her teammate. “We hadn’t played together before, but it was very fun to play with him and he’s one of my favorite teammates.” “We knew that Winston [Painter] would be dangerous and we took him out of the game as much as we could,” Secunda said. “We all took our own man and since I was the number one I would take whoever was hitting the knock ins and free hits.”

Florida Region's Finn Secunda with the hook on Eastern Region's Winston Painter.
Florida Region's Finn Secunda reaches for the hook on Eastern Region's Winston Painter.

Coached by 6-goaler Jared Zenni*, the Florida Region benefitted from his knowledge and experience which was incorporated in their team strategy. “We came out really strong from the beginning and Jared [Zenni] had a great plan for us,” Whitman commented. “He wanted us to just hit the ball the first time, play simple, play open and take the man and it really worked for us.” “They're all very willing to learn,” Zenni said. “As a coach I just tried to help as much as I could and give them my perspective.”

Florida Region's Jack Whitman approaching the ball on the Home of the U.S. Polo Assn - Field 1.
Florida Region's Jack Whitman on a breakaway on the U.S. Polo Assn Field 1.

Celebrating her first win, Florida’s Hope Arellano was named Matt Cohen Most Valuable Player. “It feels amazing to win the rematch against Eastern,” Arellano said. “Everyone knew it was going to be a really difficult game and they are all good friends of ours so it was a lot of fun.”

Eastern's Aiden Meeker reaches for the hook on Florida's Hope Arellano.
Eastern Region's Aiden Meeker makes a defensive play on Florida's Hope Arellano.

Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Pérsico, an 8-year-old chestnut gelding played by Eastern’s Winston Painter in the third chukker. Bred by Ellerstina in Argentina, Pérsico is the offspring of two top bloodlines (Penca/Cassino). “I played Pérsico in the third chukker of the semifinal against Western and scored six goals in that one chukker,” Painter said. “He’s an absolute machine, he has tons of power, breaks well and is everything you can ask for in a great horse.”

Mounted by Gabriel Crespo for the second year in a row, Painter also played the the 2019 National Youth Tournament Series Championship® Final Best Playing Pony Chaparra (Chalina x Casino) in at New Bridge Polo & Country Club in Aiken, South Carolina. “I first saw him [Painter] play in Aiken a couple years ago and he caught my eye and last winter he was my working student,” Crespo said. “He’s a very talented young American player who deserves the help so I was happy to mount him again for this tournament.”

Currently for sale, Pérsico will likely be seen in the 2021 GAUNTLET OF POLO® played by Aspen/Dutta Corp’s Stewart Armstrong. “His mentality is probably his greatest strength on the field, he’s always very attentive and has the same mindset as a player,” Painter added. “He’s always looking and asking where to go, you never have to force him to do anything.”

Best Playing Pony- Persico- Owned by Stewart Armstrong, played by Winston Painter
Best Playing Pony: Pérsico played by Winston Painter, presented with USPA Chairman Stewart Armstrong, pictured with Otto Arredondo and Geovanny Valladares.

The Horsemanship Award was presented to Florida’s Finn Secunda and the Sportsmanship Award was awarded to Western’s Alea Crespo, both first time participants. “I thought this would be a great opportunity for me to learn and experience more and I’m so happy that I said ‘yes!’” Alea Crespo said. “Everyone here is so kind and even though I just met these people they were all so nice to me, so I’m really lucky that I got to play.”

Meeting the Western Region in the consolation final earlier in the day, the Central Region came in third place with a final score of 6-2.

Central Region- Lily Lequerica , Grace Parker, Lance Stefanakis, Vance Miller III, pictured with Chrys Beal.
2020 National Youth Tournament Championship® 3rd Place: Central Region - Lily Lequerica, Grace Parker, Lance Stefanakis, Vance Miller III, presented by USPA Governor at Large and NYTS Chair Chrys Beal.

Although the 2020 National Youth Tournament Series Championship® was initially scheduled to be held at Oak Brook Polo Club (Oak Brook, Illinois) last year, the teams were thankful that they were still able to participate in the tournament at a later date. “It’s a great tribute to everybody, the players, organizers, Committee, clubs and horse providers to be able to put on this event,” said USPA CEO Robert Puetz. “I’m so happy that we could give this opportunity to the kids to play on outstanding fields both at IPC and Port Mayaca Polo Club.”

*Jack Whitman, Hope Arellano and Winston Painter are Active Team USPA members. Jared Zenni is a Graduating Team USPA Member. 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.

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