May 17, 2021 7:11 PM
Distinguishing themselves from a competitive field of seven teams, Gardnertown Polo Club (Winston Painter*, Vlad Tarashansky, Jonathan Wallace) met top seeded Houston Polo Club (Lance Stefanakis, Ashvath Bhatia, Will Mudra, Joe Bob Lequerica) in the final on Sunday, May 16, to determine who would engrave their names on the George C. Sherman Open National Interscholastic Championship (ONIS) trophy. Receiving a bye to the semifinals, Houston Polo Club (HPC) narrowly defeated the all-girls team GFS-Ruda while Gardnertown swept a decisive win over Myopia Varsity. Both finalists seeking redemption with HPC losing the 2019 ONIS Final and Gardnertown experiencing the same result in 2018, the final remained tight throughout the first three chukkers. Playing especially strong in the second half, Gardnertown exploded offensively in the final period to seal their first ever championship win 21-10.
The morning of the championship final dawned cool at Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. HPC opened the game with three consecutive goals to take the early lead, but Painter singlehandedly matched the tally to tie in the first chukker. “Our strategy going into the final was to take advantage of our throw-ins and our fast pace of play,” Painter said. “Even though we had never faced this Houston team before we were confident that we wouldn’t have to change our strategy or style of play in order to contend for the victory.”
Stefanakis and Painter initiated a steady stream of goals, trading goals twice to start the second as Wallace and Lequerica added their first goals of the game. A final goal from Painter before the buzzer gave Gardnertown a slim edge at halftime 7-6.
Spectacular two-pointers from Painter and Mudra highlighted the third chukker as the teams battled to create a sizable lead. Holding onto their one-goal advantage moving into the final chukker, Gardnertown would soon take control of the game with an impressive offensive display. “We have always been a second-half team, and I think that our ability to capitalize on throw-ins and maintain offensive pressure is what led to the success of our fourth chukker,” Painter revealed. Holding HPC scoreless, Gardnertown catapulted into the lead as their selfless play resulted in ten goals between all three players, including a two-pointer from Tarashansky, to end the game 21-10.
“It feels really good to finally win nationals especially since it was cancelled last year due to the pandemic,” said high-school senior Tarashansky. “Finishing off with such a commanding chukker was better than anything I could have imagined to end my high school career. It’s also great to win alongside Winston [Painter] our senior year. I’ve been playing with and against him since I started about nine years ago.”
All-Stars included Josephine Dorsey (GFS-Ruda), Winston Painter (Gardnertown), Lance Stefanakis (Houston Polo Club) and Vlad Tarashansky (Gardnertown). Esteban Penados (Lancaster-Work to Ride) received the Sportsmanship Award.
Reaching the semifinals, GFS-Ruda made a special achievement of their own as the first all-girls team to compete in ONIS since 2007. “The girls showed a huge improvement from their opening game Wednesday against Lakeside,” GFS-Ruda Coach Posey Obrecht commented. “I think the nerves got to them a bit, but they were ready to rock and roll in the semifinal against Houston. It was a fast and open game which was fantastic to watch. I could not be more proud of them for how well they represented themselves as an all-girls team in the open tournament,” Obrecht said beaming.
Responsible for 13 goals of Gardnertown’s total 21, high-school senior Painter will be a strong addition to the UCONN (University of Connecticut) polo team this upcoming season, taking the invaluable experience gained during his interscholastic years. “This win not only means a lot to Jonathan [Wallace], Vlad [Tarashansky], and I; but more importantly, this win means a lot to the Gardnertown polo program,” Painter shared. “I strongly believe that our coach Bill Denker has one of the best youth polo programs in the country and it’s really nice to take home the national championship as a token of appreciation for Bill and everyone involved. It’s nice to have something to show for all the hard work, time and dedication that coaches like Bill and Dan Scott have put into this year’s team and previous teams.” “It was a great final game against a strong Houston team,” Gardnertown head coach Bill Denker added. “Our boys played with composure and as a team, finishing as they have done all season.”
“This win also means a lot to the Gardnertown interscholastic alumni, namely John Denker, Joe Post, Matteo Chaux, Pierre Chaux and Matt Forbes,” Painter continued. “We as a team would not be where we are today if it were not for them and I cannot overemphasize their contribution to this win. The entire Gardnertown polo community has played such a monumental role in helping us achieve the national championship win this year so the victory is just as much theirs as it is ours.”
Recognized for his horsemanship both inside and outside the arena, Oliver Wheatley (Lakeside) was presented with the Horsemanship Award and flew home with a brand-new saddle. Minnie owned by Virginia Polo, was the highest scoring horse of the tournament for her spectacular play and UVA 2 was awarded Best Playing String.
Hosted by the Virginia Polo Center which is also home to the University of Virginia (UVA) polo teams, ONIS is the crowning achievement of an interscholastic player’s career. “It was a very exciting week for high school polo teams around the country to be able to compete in this tournament and the Virginia Polo Center is the perfect venue for such an event,” said UVA coach Lou Lopez. “I had the opportunity to observe Vlad Tarashansky who is one of my recruits. He will make an excellent addition to our UVA squad and I’m looking forward to a fantastic collegiate season.”
The Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) staff would like to thank Virginia Polo, Garrison Forest School, Triangle Polo Club and David Brooks, Myopia Polo Club and Work to Ride for providing fantastic horses for the teams to play in the tournament. They would also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the umpiring crew of John Bianco, Stan Feldman, Mike VanDerwerken and Bradley Biddle. Last, but certainly not least, the tournament would have not been possible without the facilities of Virginia Polo and the tireless work of Lou Lopez and Grace Burgert.
National interscholastic competition continues next week with the Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship which will begin Tuesday, May 18, hosted by New Bridge Polo & Country Club (Aiken, South Carolina). The semifinals, Thursday, May 20, and final, Saturday, May 22, will be livestreamed exclusively on Global Polo TV.
*Winston Painter is an Active 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 ©Oana Moore.
Effective Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
The suspension of USPA Tournaments and Events will be lifted for USPA Member Clubs in locales where hosting polo matches and tournaments is permitted under applicable state and local laws, executive orders and similar decrees. The USPA Member Clubs in these locales are encouraged to follow all such requirements of their state and local authorities with respect to polo operations. In addition, we also encourage all USPA Member Clubs to take the precautions recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a detailed list of best practices for USPA Member Clubs as they return to hosting USPA Tournaments and Events and plan to circulate these guidelines within the next week. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and will notify you if we determine a different course of action is necessary.Read More