Mar 07, 2018 9:46 PM


Story courtesy of Sharon Robb for Grand Champions Polo Club/ All photos ©Chiaro photo

Team USPA (Felipe Viana 5, Tommy Alberdi 4, Nick Johnson 3, Julia Smith 0) is an early favorite after opening the $50,000 National 12-Goal Tournament Monday, March 5 with a 12-5 victory over Grand Champions (Grant Ganzi 2, Juancito Bollini 4, Matt Coppola 4, Bauti Panelo, 2) at Santa Rita Polo Farm in Wellington, Florida.

Playing together for the first time, Team USPA was tied 4-all with Grand Champions early in the fourth chukker before scoring eight unanswered goals. Tommy Alberdi scored a game-high six goals including two penalty conversions, with each Team USPA member contributing to the scoreboard. "This is a great team, I'm very happy with the win," said 23-year-old Alberdi who is playing the 12-goal season at Grand Champions Polo Club with Newport. "This helps our confidence going into the next game."

Bauti Panelo of Grand Champions defending Team USPA's Julia Smith.
Bauti Panelo of Grand Champions defending Team USPA's Julia Smith.

Team USPA was unable to practice together before the tournament because Nick Johnson, based at The Villages Polo Club in The Villages, Florida was playing in Sarasota, and Julia Smith was working with Goose Creek. The teams played evenly in the opening half with the lead changing hands six times before Team USPA took a 4-3 halftime lead on Johnson's goal with 28 seconds left.

"We had the first three chukkers, honestly, to get to know each other on the field from not playing with each other before,” Alberdi said. "Then we just started gelling. We switched the knock-ins and kept doing what we were doing. We were organized and we came into halftime talking about what we were doing wrong," Alberdi continued. "We were getting a little caught up with their knock-ins, letting them bring the ball a little too far into the field without pressure. We didn't let them have control of the ball and that's when we started picking up on their mistakes."

Matt Coppola of Grand Champions, hooks Felipe Viana of Team USPA
Matt Coppola hooks Felipe Viana of Team USPA.

Felipe Viana, the 28-year-old team captain, regrouped his teammates during halftime. "It was just a matter of time for us to start playing better together," Viana said. " Slowly, we started merging together and making plays more naturally instead of forcing them. By the time I looked at the scoreboard we were up by a bunch of goals. It just felt like our team was clicking and our team chemistry got stronger. We played simple and every single one of us did their job."

Although securing a sizable victory in their first game, Viana said the tournament is wide open and there is no clear cut favorite to win. "It doesn't get any better when you start a little shaky and all of a sudden it clicks so quickly and so solidly, it's nice," Viana continued. "We still have to work on getting better because there are really strong teams in this tournament. We have to make baby steps and stay concentrated and focused on who we have to play next."

Grant Ganzi of Grand Champions goes for the hook
Grant Ganzi goes for the hook.

Johnson had nothing but praise for Viana’s leadership. "Felipe is a good captain and gave us simple jobs to do; no one tried to play individually. He wanted us to play four-man polo and that's what we did. This win was a good confidence-boost, but we have to go in with the mentality that it was one game," Johnson said. "I thought we were the underdogs today. Our team was put together last Monday and Grand Champions comes from a hell of an organization with great horses."

Smith is the only woman competing in the tournament. She has been a member of Team USPA since 2004 and graduated from University of Virginia where she was one of the nation's top collegiate players.

Juancito Bollini of Grand Champions goes for the big hit downfield
Juancito Bollini of Grand Champions goes for the big hit downfield.

"I'm really happy with the win and to be playing, it's such an honor to be on the team with these boys and I am learning so much," said 23-year-old Smith. "I think we really started clicking and gelling as a team in the second half. This definitely helps my confidence going into the next game. The more we play together, the better we will get."

Coppola, who is also a member of the Team USPA program, scored all four of Grand Champions goals including two penalty shots.

Grand Champions teammates Juancito Bollini, Matt Coppola, Grant Ganzi and Bauti Panelo
Grand Champions teammates (L to R): Juancito Bollini, Matt Coppola, Grant Ganzi and Bauti Panelo

Tournament action resumes Thursday, March 8, when GSA begins their title defense against Deeridge at Grand Champions Field 4 at 4pm ET. GSA returns Henry Porter, Santino Magrini and Torito Ruiz. Viana's younger brother, Nachi, replaces Juan Martin Zubia who is not competing.

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.