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Balls to the Wall

Casablanca hangs on the Arena Handicap title

September 2020

Defending champion Casablanca downed McClure River Ranch, 12-10, in the final of the U.S. Arena Handicap Polo Championship at Aspen Valley Polo Club in Carbondale, Colorado, July 29. It was the fourth time the Casablanca team has played together and they played like a well-oiled machine.

Four teams played off in the event. In the first semifinal match, Casablanca faced Seminole Casino, pitting father and son, Juan and Juancito Bollini and mother and son, Melissa and Grant Ganzi against each other.

Casablanca jumped right out with Grant Ganzi getting on the board with a two-point shot. He followed with another goal then sunk a Penalty 2 within the first three minutes. Roldan hit the goal before Seminole was awarded a penalty, but Melissa’s shot hit a divot and went wide by inches. Roldan scored again and Grant sent the ball to goal but was whistled on the call so it didn’t count. With less than a minute on the clock, Melissa carried a Penalty 5 through traffic to put Seminole Casino on the board, ending the first period, 6-1.

Seminole Casino fought back in the second with Melissa hopping on a pass from Bollini out of the line-up, walking it along the wall for her second goal. Negro Novillo Astrada, working in the middle, turned back a sure goal from Casablanca, then took a back shot pass from Juan to score. A minute later, Juan shot from the far wall to find the goal mouth for a two-pointer, bringing Seminole Casino within one, 6-5. Casablanca was caught off guard by Seminole’s comeback but Roldan managed to score two more to increase the Casablanca lead to 8-5 at the half.

Both teams came out firing in the third period. Novillo Astrada backed a ball out of the opening line-up to Melissa along the wall, who pushed it into the goal. She followed with another goal then converted a Penalty 2 and just like that, with a little over a minute into the chukker the teams were tied, 8-8. Casablanca was awarded a Penalty 2 but it went wide. Shortly after, Roldan flicked the ball from his nearside into the goal to take back the lead. Juancito added to it with a goal at the three-minute mark. Over zealous, Alejandro Novillo Astrada sent the ball over the wall several times before he found the goal. Juan followed with a goal of his own to level the score at 10-all. Juancito broke the tie after walking the ball along the wall into goal then scoring another with under a minute left. It was anyone’s game as the teams came back for the final chukker with Casablanca leading 12-10.

Roldan got into a dual with Juan early in the chukker, pushing the ball into the goal and losing his mallet in the process. The teams then traded Penalty 1s before Melissa’s Penalty 2 conversion brought the team back within two. Grant added another goal at the halfway mark and Roldan followed with one of his own. Seminole Casino wouldn’t back down with Juan narrowly missing a two-pointer on a Penalty 5. With just a minute on the board Melissa Ganzi added another goal. Juancito came through with one more and Novillo Astrada hit the target just before the final buzzer. Despite the effort, Casablanca held onto the lead, 17-14, to advance to the final.

The other semifinal was a battle between the ranches as McClure River Ranch took on Sopris Mountain Ranch. Sopris began with a handicap goal and Nacho Novillo Astrada quickly neutralized it with a goal from the side wall. Jared Zenni stole the ball from Pablo Spinacci, then sunk a neck shot for another for McClure. Tincho Merlos scored on a two-pointer from the back wall, then followed with another a minute later to give Sopris the 5-2 lead. Marc Ganzi converted a Penalty 2 with an easy half swing. Zenni hit the target and a Penalty 1 for McClure knotted the score at 5-all at the end of the first. Ganzi tallied to start off the second chukker and Nacho Novillo Astrada shot from 80 yards for a two-pointer. Merlos matched it and Anthony Devrient covered a lot of ground with two precise hits to goal to tie it up at 8-8. Ganzi converted a Penalty 2 to break the tie, but Spinacci answered to level it at the half, 9-9.

McClure was reenergized after the half and within a minute and a half had racked up four more points with goals by each team member, including a two-pointer off a back shot from Novillo Astrada. Merlos shot in his fourth two-pointer in response and Spinacci scored through traffic to keep it close. With 1:40 on the clock, McClure received a Penalty 1, ending the third with McClure ahead, 14-12. The last chukker was all McClure. Novillo Astrada scored a two-pointer, then followed with another three minutes later. Zenni hit the target and Novillo Astrada followed with a goal. Sopris was shooting but wasn’t having luck finding the mark. On the other hand, McClure couldn’t miss. Ganzi added another as did Zenni. With less than a minute on the clock, Devrient ended the drought with his second goal. With time ticking away, Spinacci and Merlos both scrambled to put one in the goal, but they were having no luck. McClure advanced with the 22-13 win.

The final was held a few days later with McClure facing Casablanca. Marc Ganzi was replaced by Tom Barrack on McClure. Just 20 seconds into the first period, Zenni got caught in front of Juancito Bollini by the goal, resulting in Casablanca being awarded a Penalty 1. Thirty seconds later Roldan walked the ball along the wall and into the goal. Casablanca kept the ball on its end of the field but couldn’t reach the goal. McClure moved the ball to its end and Roldan was caught in the way after the ball bounced off the wall, resulting in a Penalty 3 for McClure. Zenni sunk it to put the team on the board.

Casablanca was playing well as a team and showed their experience in the arena. With Ganzi defending, Bollini and Roldan volleyed the ball back and forth until it found the mark. The chukker ended with Casablanca sporting a 3-1 lead.

In the second chukker, Nic was fighting to get the ball into the goal but it got away from him. His pony helped him out, kicking it into the goal. Nacho Novillo Astrada hit the ball out of the air on his nearside, getting the right angle and spin to send it into the goal. Roldan answered back with a goal.

McClure couldn’t capitalize on a Penalty 2, but Casablanca did when Grant Ganzi opted for a half swing to finesse the ball into the goal. Zenni shot the ball three-quarters the length of the field, but Bollini put his mallet in the way. The ball still made it to the goal, but didn’t count as two points. Roldan put on a show, bouncing the ball on the end of his mallet while galloping downfield like it was no big thing but the umpire’s whistle stopped the action. Zenni converted the Penalty 2 but Roldan added another goal to end the first half with Casablanca doubling up McClure, 8-4.

Casablanca kept up the pressure in the second half, starting the third with Roldan shooting from the back wall. Bollini escorted it to goal, protecting it without touching it to ensure the two points. Barrack knocked in his first, sticking with it after his first approach bounced wide. Roldan answered with another tally and Ganzi added one more. Novillo Astrada wouldn’t let up, sinking a Penalty 2, then adding a field goal with just nine seconds left in the chukker. McClure trailed 12-7 going into the last period.

Zenni successfully protected the goal, turning back all of Casablanca’s drives. McClure needed some two-pointers to get them back in the game, but were not connecting. Zenni found the target at the 4:48 mark. Roldan had another carry, bouncing the ball at the end of his stick but was eventually whistled after coming across the line. Novillo Astrada chisled away at the deficit, sinking back-to-back Penalty 2s to come within two, 12-10, with a minute remaining. Desperate for a two-pointer to force overtime, McClure didn’t get the opportunity and Casablanca rode off the winner.

Roldan was named MVP and his grey mare, Molly, was Best Playing Pony. In the subsidiary, Sopris Mountain edged Seminole Casino, 8-7.

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