Sep 12, 2022 2:59 PM
Returning for a second consecutive year, the National Youth Tournament Series (NTYS) Girls’ Championship culminated in a matchup between Electric Charge (Victoria Picha, Winifred Branscum, Olivia Reynolds, Micaela Saracco) and Ever Ready (Francesca Felhaber, Sophia DeAngelis, Aurora Knox, Robyn Leitner) at the picturesque La Herradura Polo Club in Santa Ynez, California, on Sunday, September 11. Controlling the match from the outset, a dominant four-goal performance from 15-year-old Saracco coupled with a formidable defense powered Electric Charge to a commanding 6-1.5 victory and NYTS Girls’ Championship title. As the official apparel supplier of the NYTS Championship® weekend, U.S. Polo Assn. outfitted the players with whites and t-shirts and provided gear bags and saddle pads as prizes.
Switching from the motif of colors in 2021, this year’s girls’ teams honored Hall of Fame Horses to Remember. All of the Girls’ competitors apart from Saracco and Kelsey Bray (Delta Dawn) rented their horses for the tournament. Displaying the ability to adapt quickly to new challenges, players’ growth in horsemanship, sportsmanship and skill was further complimented by the invaluable presence of their individual coaches in Jimmy Wright* (Electric Charge) and Felipe Viana* (Ever Ready) alongside the mentorship of La Herradura Polo Club’s owners and founders Memo and Meghan Gracida.
“It’s really good for American youth players to feel that if they work hard enough, and choose to do this, this is what it can be.” – Winifred Branscum
Spending the summer at La Herradura, 19-year-old Reynolds gladly accepted her first NYTS invitation as a welcome surprise, “I wanted to play in the NYTS Championship, but I wasn’t expecting it. I’ve attended other NYTS tournaments as a spectator, and I think this one stood out with the facility and all the work that was put into it.” Reynolds continued, “The whole experience was great, the facilities are amazing and the horses from Memo were amazing—Meghan and the whole Gracida family are here to help us, and I thought it was nice to have them as another resource aside from the coaches. This was the perfect tournament, it’s beautiful here, I don’t want to leave!”
A running theme for the success of Electric Charge throughout the tournament was open and honest communication. Discovering their teams approximately two weeks before the tournament, relationships between the new teammates were crucial. Branscum noted, “Our chemistry showed right off the bat! We created a group chat and started making connections that were reflected as soon as we got on the field. We all told each other, ‘We’re going to be honest,’ and we weren’t afraid of hurting people’s feelings. We all worked together and understood what some of us were good at and what some of us weren’t and we took advantage of that.”
Echoing Branscum’s sentiments Reynolds added, “From the beginning we were back home texting and trying to figure out our plan and our communication was light and fun. When something wasn’t going right, we immediately fixed it and we were honest with each other saying, ‘Hey guys, I can’t do this, can you?’ and we switched—there was no blame if we made mistakes, we were worried about the next play and not the last one.” Picha noted, “we would ask what type of horses we like to ride, what our positioning was, I’ve been really fortunate with the people on my team and my brother team [Southeast], they are all such great people.”
Getting to know her new teammates, Reynolds stated, “I knew Mica from playing against her before - she beat me in a women’s tournament here [at La Herradura] last week. I knew of my other teammates, but I’d never seen them play.” “I was so excited,” shared Branscum, “I worked really hard to get here and it was more than I could have ever imagined. My teammates were such a blast, my opponents and everyone were so nice, and we got to listen to Meghan and Memo Gracida - it was so much fun because of the people.” Saracco stated, “I’ve played at La Herradura, and I only knew Olivia, but the way we played it is like we’ve known each other forever!”
“There was no blame, if we made mistakes we were worried about the next play and not the last one.” – Olivia Reynolds
Awarding Ever Ready with 0.5 on handicap at the onset of the match, Electric Charge’s lineup of first time NYTS competitors began with a jolt as Branscum carried their first goal over the line with help from all teammates. Donning the captain’s armband, two consecutive goals from Saracco followed to give Electric Charge a 3-0.5 lead. With time quickly expiring in the half, Sophia DeAngelis finally found some footing to score on Ever Ready’s sole successful drive of the day, as Electric Charge entered the break with an assertive 3-1.5 advantage.
Receiving constant feedback from Coach Jimmy Wright, Saracco shared a key moment of support for her in the final, “I started out angry with myself. All the nerves and stress piled up; I was stressed with myself, but he helped calm me down. He was an amazing coach and supported us and gave us the ideas he had.” Picha also praised Wright, “He was great, he said all the right things and had all the right tactics. He knew us better than we knew ourselves in some moments even though we just met him.”
“Part of the reason they got to the finals is they played in their natural positions,” added Wright, “Mica liked to play in the back. Winnie did a good job at three, which is something we switched today. Tori did a great job in the middle in the number two slot, and Olivia did a great job putting a lot of pressure in front on the hitter. They did a good job rotating those positions as well as the game went on and as the play opened up.”
Unwilling to give any momentum to Ever Ready, Picha stressed the importance of her defensive game, “Man, man, man. I play a heavy defensive game and want to clear out the field for my other teammates and stay on that man.” Saracco added, “We wanted to mark the man how we’ve been playing in practices and the first game, we did well in both of them and we knew how we wanted to play.” Noting the best piece of advice received during the tournament, Picha stated she learned, “to stop saying ‘sorry,’ make mistakes, and play the play you have.”
“Stop saying sorry. Make mistakes and play the play you have.” – Victoria Picha
Stifling hopes for an Ever Ready comeback, Branscum opened the second half increasing Electric Charge’s lead 4-1.5. Despite facing two returning NYTS competitors in DeAngelis and Leitner, Electric Charge’s ability to keep Ever Ready pinned on defense allowed Saracco to circulate and find space on the field. Hitting back-to-back goals on consecutive breakaway runs, Saracco ended her day leading Electric Charge with four goals, as a shutdown second half left their skilled opponents off the scoreboard to earn the NYTS Girls’ Championship 6-1.5.
Coaching Electric Charge and Southeast to their respective finals in the NTYS Championship, Jimmy Wright reflected on capturing the Girls’ Championship title, “The team did a really good job of playing disciplined and as consistent as possible, going one-person for one-person. The other team is extremely physical and talented. We did a good job of playing patient and waiting for the free balls, playing defensive first, allowing the offensive positions to present themselves, and being quick to the ball.”
Capping off a spectacular performance, including leading the tournament with eight goals, Micaela Saracco was named Most Valuable Player. “It means everything,” said Saracco, “I was so happy to be playing with my teammates and I wouldn’t have received MVP without them.” Reflecting on her success on both ends of the ball Saracco continued, “I was confident in myself, my teammates and my horses.”
One of the few competitors riding her own string, Saracco’s 15-year-old mare Chapaleufu Polola was awarded Best Playing Pony. “It was a huge advantage to play my own horses,” said Saracco. The Saracco family has owned Chapaleufu Polola since she was a foal and after previously winning BPP in the 2018 edition of the NYTS Championship Girls All-Star Challenge with Hope Kerley, this year’s final was her last game before her retirement in Argentina. “I’m so happy she got Best Playing Pony,” said Saracco. “It’s her last day here and her last game. My dad gave her to me, and she’s stayed with me, but she’s still a family horse - my younger brother and dad ride her. She’s super agile, quick and I feel my most confident on her. We want to get as many babies out of her as possible!”
For her consistent demonstration of horsemanship on and off the field, Robyn Leitner was the recipient of the Horsemanship Award. “I think becoming a great player means becoming an even better rider,” said Leitner, “I was blessed to have a riding background where horsemanship was prioritized, and I was very grateful for the horses I had this week, they all played amazing!”
Isabelle Brockett (Nebraska Sunset) received the Sportsmanship Award for her continued positive attitude, fairness, and support for her peers in polo. “It was a huge honor for me to receive the award," said Brockett, “I was so grateful for everyone’s support! I was extremely excited to come to California and just getting to play was one of the best experiences ever, everyone was incredibly nice, and I couldn’t have asked for a better time!”
Speaking to the rapid growth of the NYTS program, USPA Director of Player Development Amanda Snow proudly shared, “What’s most impressive for me is to see all four girls’ teams in full swing. There was lots of talent there, and I hope the girls’ teams keep building more momentum. NYTS has grown tremendously, it’s become something that the players are really dying to participate in, which means so much. It’s become something you plan your whole season and summer around.”
Snow continued, "More importantly, the qualifiers have created so many more opportunities for these kids to play against each other outdoor at a local level and really strengthen the polo roots on the ground. I think the first year we had twelve tournaments, and this year we had nearly 30. We have lots of kids that play in them, and people travel. My whole dream for the program from the beginning was for it to be something that I wish existed when I was a kid growing up, and I think that it feels like it came true!”
As the first coach to have also competed in the NYTS championship, Wright reflected on the importance of the experience, “It gives players a lot of confidence and you get to meet players that you get to be around your whole life and it’s a preliminary example of how to play tournaments that hopefully translate to things like FIP. It’s a great place to meet new people and showcase yourself, especially with Global Polo.”
Noting the importance of celebrating youth polo in such a prestigious manner Branscum elaborated, “It’s really good for American youth players to feel that if they work hard enough, and choose to do this, this is what it can be. I think it’s an amazing program. It connects people from all over the U.S. - I’ve even met people from Mexico, Canada, it’s incredible!”
“My whole dream for the program from the beginning was for it to be something that I wish existed when I was a kid growing up, and I think that it feels like it came true!” – Amanda Snow, USPA Director of Player Development
Reflecting on her own accomplishments, Branscum continued, “For me, it was putting in the time before I even got here on my horses and showing up to every NYTS tournament with a good attitude on and off the field. I’ve played three NYTS tournaments leading up to this, and I’ve averaged two or three for the last three years. I’ve been working towards this for a while, and I have two more years of eligibility, so I’m hoping to be back!”
Earlier in the day, Nebraska Sunset (Isabelle Brockett, Ruby Decker, Reagan Leitner, Elise Pardue) and Delta Dawn (Caroline Mathews, Lauren Patoile, Lily Lequerica, Kelsey Bray) faced off in the NYTS Girls’ Championship consolation final with five returning NTYS competitors (Leitner, Pardue, Mathews, Lequerica, Bray). Receiving 0.5 on handicap, Nebraska Sunset set out to an early start, with contributions from Pardue and Decker giving their team a 2.5-0 lead at halftime. Regrouping at the break, goals from Mathews and Lequerica pulled Delta Dawn back within striking distance, but ultimately Nebraska Sunset’s handicap provided the difference for the 2.5-2 win.
*Jimmy Wright and Felipe Viana 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 ©Kerri Kerley.
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