May 02, 2017 3:33 PM

Aiken NYTS
Youth participants line up for awards at the National Youth Tournament Series, in Aiken, South Carolina which took place April 29–30. ©Elizabeth Hedley

Article courtesy of Dede Biles for the Aiken Standard

Saturday was Summer Kneece’s 12th birthday, and she spent it playing polo instead of blowing out candles on a cake.

“We made her have her party last week because we knew we were going to be so busy,” said Summer’s father, Tiger. “We told her, ‘There is one thing Mommy and Daddy can’t do, and that’s squeeze in a party this weekend.’”

Tiger is the junior polo director for the Aiken Polo Club in Aiken, South Carolina, and his wife, Susie, is the director of sponsorship and advertising. The Polo Club hosted a United States Polo Association National Youth Tournament Series event that started April 29 at the Powderhouse Polo Field and ends April 30 at the New Bridge Polo & Country Club in Aiken, South Carolina. Summer is a member of one of the seven teams that are participating. The squads are divided into Flights A, B and C based on their players’ abilities.

“It’s fun to play polo because you get to be with your friends and your teammates,” said Summer, whose Polo Adventures team is in the B Flight.

Team USPA member Connor Deal refereed the action in the Aiken National Youth Tournament Series. Photo by Elizabeth Hedley.
Team USPA member Connor Deal* refereed the action in the National Youth Tournament Series in Aiken, South Carolina. ©Elizabeth Hedley

Anna Hale, 13, is on the Isinya team, which is in the top-rated A Flight. “I like polo because you get to be with horses,” she said. “You have a partnership with them that is really, really special.”

Hale also enjoys the challenges that polo offers. “Everything goes fast, so you constantly have to be thinking ahead,” she said. “There also is a lot of contact. You bump into a lot of people and you hook their mallets.”

Hale hopes to be involved in polo for a long time, but probably won’t pursue it as a career. “I don’t know if I want to be a professional,” she said. “It’s very hard to do that. But I want it to be something that I can do for the rest of my life, probably as just a hobby.”

Aiken NYTS
Robyn Leitner of Easy Street and Michael Bradford of Aiken Counseling Group charge down the field during the USPA National Youth Tournament Series in Aiken, South Carolina. ©Dede Biles

Michael Bradford, 12, is on the Aiken Counseling Group team, which is in the C Flight for the least experienced players. He began playing polo last October. “I had been going to some matches, and I thought polo was really cool, so I decided to try it,” Bradford said. “It was really fun being able to play with a team, and I enjoyed the feeling that you get when you score a goal. Your teammates congratulate you, and you feel great.”

At each of the series’ events, all-stars are selected based on playing ability, horsemanship, sportsmanship and how they work together with their teammates. All-stars are eligible to be chosen to participate in the National Youth Tournament Series National Championship in Santa Barbara, California.

The 2017 USPA National Youth Tournament Series began in February. States where its events are being held in addition to California and South Carolina include Arizona, Texas and New York.

Twenty-eight players, ranging in age from 9 to 18, are participating in Aiken’s Youth Tournament Series event, Tiger Kneece said. Some live as far away as Maryland and Texas.

“I got enough phone calls on Wednesday and Thursday that I could have put together two more teams, but we had already cut off the registration,” Tiger said. “It’s the first time that we’ve done the Youth Tournament Series, so there has been a learning curve. But the turnout was great, and we plan to do it again next year.”

*Connor Deal is a member 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.