Oct 29, 2018 4:17 PM

North American Cup® Champions Travieso (L to R) Pite Merlos, Juan Cruz Merlos, Grant Ganzi, Tony Calle.
North American Cup® Champions Travieso (L to R) Pite Merlos, Juan Cruz Merlos, Grant Ganzi, Tony Calle.

Story courtesy of Grand Champions Polo Club/Sharon Robb

In a wild finish, Travieso rallied in the second half to win the coveted North American Cup® Saturday at Grand Champions Polo Club in Wellington, Florida. Trailing by five goals at halftime, Travieso (Tony Calle*, Grant Ganzi*, Juan Cruz Merlos, Pite Merlos) staged an incredible comeback for a stunning 14-13 overtime victory over Audi (Wes Finlayson*, Brandon Phillips, Pablo Spinacci, Marc Ganzi) in one of the most exciting finishes in North American Cup history.

Travieso's Tony Calle prepares for a backshot.
Travieso's Tony Calle prepares for a backshot.

In front of a local crowd and worldwide USPA Polo Network audience, Travieso was relentless in the second half, shutting out Audi in the fifth chukker, 4-0. Travieso outscored Audi 9-4 in the final three chukkers before Grant Ganzi came up with the game-winning Penalty 2 conversion with 3:41 left in sudden death. Former 10-goaler Pite Merlos was named Most Valuable Player after the playmaker sparked the comeback and scored four second-half goals. "It's a great feeling to win like this coming back in extra time," Pite Merlos said. "I'm so sorry for Audi because they were a great challenge."

Audi's Wes Finlayson sends a neckshot across field.
Audi's Wes Finlayson sends a neckshot across field.

It was the first major tournament Merlos' 20-year-old son Juan Cruz Merlos won in the U.S. The 5 goaler is making his U.S. polo debut at Grand Champions this fall. "It's a great feeling to play with my son," Pite Merlos said. "It allows me to pass on all the great knowledge I have learned from great players. Now there is a narrow line between how much coach and father I need to be. Right now, I just need to learn to be his teammate only. I am enjoying every single minute. I think I don't want to play with him much longer because he is going up and I am going down."

Juan Cruz Merlos echoed his father's sentiments, "I am so happy we won and I won with my dad. We were struggling at one stage, then my dad, the head of the team, got things together. He made some moves and changed some positions and we got it. We had our system, got our rhythm back and Grant had the best score of the game."

Five-year-old Bliss, played by Spinacci and owned by Santa Rita Polo Farm, was selected as Best Playing Pony. For Grant Ganzi, it was his fourth North American Cup title at age 20. He also won with Casablanca twice and Flexjet. Ganzi scored a game-high five goals including three key penalty conversions. "Obviously, I was nervous taking the penalty shot in overtime," Grant Ganzi said. "I'm not a robot, I'm human. I was definitely nervous. There was a lot of energy and heat on the field. After the play I was trying to remain calm and keep focused. It's nice to win this one again. This one is probably the best win I have had out of all of them. Today was a tough day and it showed our determination to come back. It was good to get this win and it was a fun team to play with." Ganzi said Merlos' halftime coaching strategy and pep talk helped. "We were a little down on ourselves," Ganzi said. "Pite got us together and said 'guys, we're disorganized and showing the inexperience we have.' We were leaving men open and they were killing us. We needed to show more experience and maturity. We needed to change and get tight on the man and do something drastic to swing the game our way. Tony went to the back, I went to one, Juan Cruz went to two and Pite went to three."

North American Cup® Trophy
North American Cup® Trophy.

Juan Cruz Merlos added, "I had faith since the beginning of the game. We were down by so many goals but we are all young and all wanted to win. I thought we could do it." It was Team Tony Calle's second North American Cup victory in three years and fifth 20-goal tournament title in his young career. "We were a little disorganized at the beginning," Calle said. "We had to change our game plan after halftime and it worked beautifully. Pite knew exactly what to do. Grant Ganzi played phenomenal today. It was a tough shot in overtime and he made it look easy. When I stayed back Pite and Juan Cruz had the freedom to go up more and were better with the ball."

Audi played a near-perfect first half, jumping out to a 4-1 lead in the opening chukker with goals from Finlayson and Marc Ganzi and two goals on handicap. Audi continued to control the momentum in the next two chukkers to extend their lead to 6-3 after two chukkers and 9-4 at the half. Travieso clawed their way back into the game in one of the most amazing turnarounds. Merlos scored two goals and Grant Ganzi converted a penalty-three to outscore Audi 3-2 in the fourth chukker to trail 11-7. Travieso outscored Audi 4-0 in the fifth to tie the game at 11-all on Marc Ganzi's goal off a rebound with 24 seconds left.

The lead changed hands four times in the sixth chukker. Phillips Penalty 3 conversion regained the lead for Audi at 12-11. Grant Ganzi came up with a clutch Penalty 3 conversion to tie the game at 12-all. With 1:25 left in regulation, Pite Merlos then lofted a Penalty 4 conversion to give Travieso a 13-12 lead and what looked to be the game until Spinacci took a pass from Finlayson and scored just before the horn sending the game into overtime.

Best Playing Pony Bliss played by Pablo Spinacci and owned by Santa Rita Polo Farm.
Best Playing Pony Bliss played by Pablo Spinacci and owned by Santa Rita Polo Farm.

Both teams had scoring opportunities from the field in overtime before Pite Merlos was fouled on a run to goal and Ganzi came up with a penalty conversion. "After our team talk at halftime, we put Tony Calle at back so that freed me a little more to go forward," Pite Merlos said. "In the first half I was too deep at back so we didn't have too many shots to goal." In addition to Ganzi's five goals, Juan Cruz Merlos scored four goals and Calle added one.

For Audi, Wes Finlayson, scored a team-high four goals and was one of the most dominant players on the field. Spinacci had three goals and Phillips and Marc Ganzi each contributed two. In The Just For The Love Of It subsidiary game, Gracida Wines (Carlitos Gracida, Whistle Uys, Mariano Gracida, Julio Gracida) defeated Flexjet (Melissa Ganzi, Pablo Dorignac, Pablo Spinacci, Juan Bollini) 11-9.

The North American Cup® is the club's first of two 20-goal tournaments of the fall season with a rich tradition in history dating back to 1974. The tournament has been a mainstay in American and Canadian polo for decades at the 16- to 20-goal level. The inaugural winner was Tulsa with Hall of Famers John T. Oxley and Billy Linfoot, Corky Linfoot and Jim MacGinley. During the late 1990s and early 2000s Calgary Polo Club hosted the tournament. The tournament has been held at Grand Champions since 2011.

During Saturday's game fans were treated to a full array of free food and refreshments including chicken milanese sandwiches, empanadas, pastries and elaborate custom-designed Halloween witch cake and cup cakes by Sugar Rush-Sweet Shop in Wellington.

*Tony Calle, Grant Ganzi and Wes Finlayson are members of Team USPA. 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 ©ChukkerTV