Mar 24, 2022 12:15 AM
“Because of that we were even more determined to win this year. We dedicated ourselves to working harder, as a team and as individuals. It took waking up a few hours earlier every day, practicing a few more times every week and having a collective mission to win a National Championship.” – Lance Stefanakis, on Houston Polo Club's 2021 Open National Interscholastic Championship Final loss.
On Sunday, March 20, the 2022 Open National Interscholastic Championship Final pitted hometown heroes Houston Polo Club (Joe Bob Lequerica, Will Mudra, Lance Stefanakis, Ashvath Bhatia, Judah Altic) against Aiken Polo Club (Madison Jordan, Josh Escapite, Aiden Meeker, Lazaro Gorosito) at the Brookshire Polo Club arena (Brookshire, Texas). Each team carrying a bye into the semifinals, Aiken Polo Club topped Yale Polo Club 14-10, while Houston Polo Club advanced to their second consecutive finals appearance following a dominant 18-6 victory over Lakeside Polo Club.
Meeting for the first time in the tournament, Houston Polo Club grasped an early three-goal lead, however their second half foul troubles allowed Aiken to remain in contention. Maintaining their early lead entering the final chukker, efforts from Mudra and Stefanakis lifted Houston Polo Club to the 10-7 victory to deliver the club’s first Open National Interscholastic Championship title.
“We worked constantly to become champions, and we finally did it!” – Ashvath Batia
Stefanakis struck first for Houston on a booming shot to goal from just inside the 25-yard line, while teammate Mudra followed suit to score out of the throw in. Keeping Aiken scoreless, Stefanakis rounded out the first chukker converting a Penalty 3 to place Houston ahead 3-0.
Falling short in the 2021 finals to Gardnertown Polo Club, Stefanakis emphasized the importance of getting off to an early lead, “last year we fought in a short time and lost in the last chukker. Because of that we were even more determined to win this year. We dedicated ourselves to working harder, as a team and as individuals.” Stefanakis continued,” It took waking up a few hours earlier every day, practicing a few more times every week and having a collective mission to win a National Championship.”
Riding their own string in the second, Aiken found their footing offensively outscoring their opponents 3-2. Jordan carried the ball along the boards and through the corner to get Aiken back in the game, as Escapite scored another two consecutive goals riding his personal mare, Katniss, to tie the match 3-all. In response to Aiken’s positive shift in momentum, Houston’s Lequerica stepped up to keep Aiken’s Meeker off the scoreboard. Combining for two goals in the chukker, teammates Stefanakis and Mudra ended the half 5-3 in favor of Houston.
Relaying their strategy in the break, Stefanakis noted, “[we wanted to] play our own game and play open. Aiken is very strong with the ball, so we had to be focused on the man." Motivated to begin the second half, Houston dialed into their defense, however, their zeal got them into foul trouble, with Escapite taking advantage of a Penalty 2. Meeker and Jordan’s strong play held Houston to just one goal from the field and one from the penalty line, to end the chukker with a 7-4 Houston lead.
Holding a slim three-goal lead entering the final chukker, Lequerica expressed “I felt a little nervous towards the end, but I knew we could pull it out, we just needed to avoid fouling.”
With help from a pony goal, Houston ramped up their lead to four, but Aiken refused to back down. Jordan, intent on settling the score, knocked in back-to-back goals to cut Aiken's deficit in half. Mudra answered with a field goal of his own, but Jordan once again capitalized from the penalty line. Determined not to let a second chance at the title slip away, Lequerica was able to hold off the offensive powers of Aiken in the final moments, allowing Stefanakis to retaliate on a final goal along the boards, cementing the impressive 10-7 championship win.
Reflecting on his sixth goal of the match, Stefanakis shared, “I felt like we needed to win every play and act like its [tied] to keep playing hard and not let up. The last goal I scored I felt like we needed to keep going no matter how much we were up by, the score in the arena can change so quick.”
Playing for the title in front of a home crowd of family, friends and fans was all the more rewarding for Lequerica, “it was very loud when goals were scored or fouls were drawn, it means a lot for me to be here in Houston because my family was able to enjoy the win with me."
Similarly, Mudra also expressed, “Houston has been trying to win a national title for a while now, it means a lot to my team and coach to win on home turf. I’m very blessed to have people I have around me constantly motivating me and my team.” An elated Altic added, “it was amazing. To be a part of Houston Polo Club's first National Championship will live with me forever!”
A celebratory Bhatia noted the hard work and close bond of his Houston teammates, “this is truly a moment we worked for. I want to thank Lance, the best player I’ve ever played with, Will the best teammate ever, and Joe Bob, the most talented player I’ve ever seen. We worked constantly to become champions and we finally did it!”
All-Stars in the Open National Interscholastic Championship included, Madison Jordan (Aiken Polo Club), Aiden Meeker (Aiken Polo Club), Ethan Bankhead (Lakeside Polo Club) and Lance Stefanakis (Houston Polo Club). The Sportsmanship Award was presented to Luke Howe (Yale Polo Club), while Houston’s Will Mudra took home the Horsemanship Award.
Aiken Polo Club was awarded Best Playing String, and Titona (Pistola x Lamborghini), a 10-year-old mare owned by Aiken Polo Club's Lazaro Gorosito was presented with Best Playing Pony honors. “She’s from my father’s breeding operation, Fleur de Liz. I think Madison Jordan played her the best overall in the tournament. It was really special for me and my father to get BPP, especially as this was my first ever BPP award," noted Gorosito.
"Winning Best Playing String is a very prestigious award,” stated Jordan. “The horses are one of the most important factors in the sport. Our string consisted of Aiden Meeker’s (Jasmine, Fabiana, Mongha, Lazaro Gorosito’s (Titona) and Josh Escapite’s (Achilles, Katniss, Secretaria) ponies.”
Named an All-Star in the tournament, Jordan shared her thoughts on reaching the Open National Interscholastic Championship final, “it was an empowering experience being the only female playing in the open final. Winning the All-Star award is an honor, and I’m very proud to win this award alongside my captain Aiden Meeker. I know we left it all out there, and I wouldn’t have wanted to share this experience with anyone other than these three amazing boys.”
Fellow All-Star Meeker took the time to express gratitude for his Aiken Polo teammates, “everyone played their hearts out and gave it their all out there. At the end, I couldn’t help but cry because of how much hard work my team put into getting to the finals. Even though we may have not won, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Keeping in tradition with the Girls’ National Interscholastic champion Aiken Polo Club, Houston’s celebration kicked-off with a lucky jump off the dock at Brookshire Polo Club. In their final interscholastic tournament, seniors Stefanakis and Bhatia will be graduating from Houston Polo Club’s program. “I look forward to playing intercollegiate in college. My goal is to have a 2-goal handicap by the time I’m 21, and play high-goal polo around the world," said Bhatia. Sharing what he will miss the most about interscholastic polo, Bhatia added, “the family I’ve made here. Not just on the open team, but with the girls’ team. I will also miss Coach Mark Prinsloo, Shane Rice and all the other pros we practiced with.”
Remaining in the Houston Polo Club program, Mudra and Lequerica are looking forward to defending their title, “it will be hard with Lance leaving,” expressed Lequerica. “I know Will [Mudra] will be back next year, which is great because we’ve played together the past two years. My sister [Lily Lequerica] will also be joining the Open team, so I’m feeling good. I know for sure we have more National Championships to come in the next four years. We’ll just have to keep putting in the work with many long nights in the arena!”
All photos courtesy of ©David Murrell.
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