Gardnertown Polo came away the winner in the Open National Interscholastic Championship hosted by Virginia Polo Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, May 12-16.
Distinguishing themselves from a competitive field of seven teams, Gardnertown Polo Club met top-seeded Houston Polo Club in the final on Sunday, May 16, to determine who would engrave their names on the George C. Sherman Open National Interscholastic Championship trophy.
Both finalists seeking redemption after HPC lost the 2019 ONIS final, and Gardnertown experiencing the same result in 2018, the final remained tight throughout the first three chukkers. Playing especially strong in the second half, Gardnertown exploded offensively in the final period to seal their first ever championship win, 21-10.
Six teams competed on opening day with the winners of each match advancing to the semifinals, along with Houston Polo Club, on Friday.
The first game pitted the second-seeded Gardnertown Polo Club (Winston Painter, Vlad Tarashansky, Jonathan Wallace), coached by Bill Dencker and Dan Scott, against the seventh-seed Lancaster-Work to Ride (Esteban Penados, Mosiah Gravesande, Marisol Jimenez), coached by Lezlie Hiner.
The teams started the week off hot with Tarashansky putting the first goal on the board for Gardnertown. Penados answered back with goals of his own for Lancaster-Work To Ride and the battle raged on. At halftime, the teams were tied at 7-all. Gardnertown turned it on in the third chukker and scored seven goals to Work to Ride’s two, with Tarashansky tallying four. In the final chukker, Painter would find the goal three times, sealing Gardnertown’s win, 17-11.
No. 3 seed Myopia Polo Club (Landen Eckbo Daniels, Shane Metternick, Augustus Grotnik, Rehan Kumble), coached by Yaz Grotnik, took on the No. 6 seeded Central Coast Polo Club (Morgan Manos, Ajay Moturi, Taylor Olcott, Ruby Decker), coached by Megan Judge, in the second game of the day. Myopia quickly jumped out to the lead, scoring six unanswered goals in the first chukker. In chukker No. 2, Metternick sunk a two-pointer to add to Myopia’s tally, but Central Coast found its groove and Moturi scored on a penalty shot to put CCPC on the board. Each team added four to the scoreboard, ending the half with Myopia ahead, 10-4. Decker kept the teams close with a two-pointer in the third chukker, but Kumble answered back with a two-pointer of his own. Myopia added two field goals to cap the final score at 19-7.
Fourth seeded all-girls GFS-Ruda team (Lindsey Morris, Gabriella Chiasera, Josephine Dorsey, Victoria Picha), coached by Posey Obrecht, squared off against the five-seed Lakeside Polo Club, coached by Nicole Bankhead, in the last game of the day. A pony goal put Lakeside on the board first, but Dorsey answered quickly with a field goal and Morris added two goals to end the first chukker, 3-1, in favor of GFS-Ruda. Lakeside came back strong in the second, outscoring Ruda, 4-3, and ending the half with GFS-Ruda up by a single goal.
Back on its own ponies for the third chukker, GFS-Ruda racked up five goals to Lakeside’s one heading into the last chukker. The fourth chukker had the fans on their feet as Lakeside chipped away at the gap. A first goal out of the throw-in from Bankhead was quickly answered by a Penalty 2 from Chiasera. A field goal from Dorsey would be the last goal for Ruda. Meanwhile, Bankhead continued on his quest and sunk a field goal followed by two-pointer, which put Lakeside within three. As the clock wound down, Bankhead scored the last of his five goals in the chukker, leaving Lakeside just shy of the win. GFS-Ruda held on for the 13-11 win.
Houston Polo Club (Lance Stefanakis, Ashvath Bhatia, Will Mudra, Joe Bob Lequerica), coached by Mark Prinsloo, made its debut in the semifinal against the GFS-Ruda team. Dorsey put GFS-Ruda on the board first when she drilled a Penalty 4 halfway up the goal.
Stefanakis scored four goals, but Dorsey had two more goals to her name, with Chiasera and Morris adding single tallies to close out the first chukker with GFS-Ruda up 5-4. GFS-Ruda grew its lead with a field goal from Morris and a pony goal, widening the gap to 7-4. A pony goal for Houston and a quick goal from Stefanakis brought the team within a single score. Lequerica scored two and was followed up by a Mudra tally to put Houston on top, 9-7, at the half.
Lequerica added three points while holding GFS-Ruda to one point in the third, to lead 13-8. In the final chukker, Morris came out strong, scoring two field goals to bring GFS-Ruda back within three. Dorsey fired one in to close the gap even further. Lequerica found the goal, growing the lead to three, but was answered by Morris for GFS-Ruda’s final goal. Stefanakis put the icing on the cake to end the game, 15-13, in favor of Houston.
“The girls had a huge improvement from their first game Wednesday against Lakeside going into the semifinals on Friday,” Obrecht commented. “I think the nerves got them a bit but they were ready to rock and roll the second time out with Houston. It was a fast an open game which was fantastic to watch. I could not be more proud of them for how well they represented themselves as an all-girls team in the open tournament.”
The second semi-final pitted the two Northeastern teams, Gardnertown and Myopia, against each other. Painter scored first but was answered by Grotnik. Daniels followed with a score for Myopia and Gardnertown would finish the chukker with six more points to the board. Matternick scored in the second chukker, with Daniels adding two more, but the duo of Tarashansky and Painter added two a piece going into the half, 11-5, in their favor. Gardnertown repeated its first chukker with seven goals to Myopia’s two and wrapped up the fourth chukker with six more tallies, winning 24-9, and advancing to the final against Houston.
“In Myopia’s first trip to nationals, we were lucky enough to bring our own string,” explained coach Grotnik. “The boys felt good about their horses and played [their] string in the first round. The semifinal against Gardnertown was a rematch of our regional rivalry. Their teamwork was unstoppable. We were fortunate to be here and hope to return next year.”
The consolation final was a round robin between Lakeside, Work to Ride and Central Coast. In a friendly match, Lakeside came out the victors.
The morning of the championship final dawned cool. HPC opened the game with three consecutive goals to take the early lead, but Painter single-handedly matched the tally to tie in the first chukker.
“Our strategy going into the final was to take advantage of our throw-ins and our fast pace of play,” Painter said. “Even though we had never faced this Houston team before we were confident that we wouldn’t have to change our strategy or style of play in order to contend for the victory.”
Stefanakis and Painter initiated a steady stream of goals, trading tallies twice to start the second as Wallace and Lequerica added their first goals of the game. A final goal from Painter before the buzzer gave Gardnertown a slim 7-6 edge at halftime.
Spectacular two-pointers from Painter and Mudra highlighted the third chukker as the teams battled to create a sizable lead. Holding onto their one-goal advantage moving into the final chukker, Gardnertown soon took control of the game with an impressive offensive display.
“We have always been a second-half team, and I think that our ability to capitalize on throw-ins and maintain offensive pressure is what led to the success of our fourth chukker,” Painter revealed.
Holding HPC scoreless, Gardnertown catapulted into the lead as their selfless play resulted in 10 goals between all three players, including a two-pointer from Tarashansky to end the game, 21-10.
“It was a great final game against a strong Houston team,” Dencker said. “Our boys played with composure and as a team, finishing as they have done all season.”
“It feels really good to finally win nationals especially since it was canceled last year due to the pandemic,” said high-school senior Tarashansky. “Finishing off with such a commanding chukker was better than anything I could have imagined to end my high-school career. It’s also great to win alongside Winston our senior year. I’ve been playing with and against him since I started about nine years ago.”
Responsible for 13 of Gardnertown’s 21 goals, high-school senior Painter will be a strong addition to the UCONN polo team this upcoming season, taking the invaluable experience gained during his interscholastic years.
“This win not only means a lot to Jonathan, Vlad and I, but more importantly, this win means a lot to the Gardnertown polo program,” Painter shared. “I strongly believe that our coach Bill Dencker has one of the best youth polo programs in the country and it’s really nice to take home the national championship as a token of appreciation for Bill and everyone involved. It’s nice to have something to show for all the hard work, time and dedication that coaches like Bill and Dan Scott have put into this year’s team and previous teams.
“This win also means a lot to the Gardnertown interscholastic alumni, namely John Dencker, Joe Post, Matteo Chaux, Pierre Chaux and Matt Forbes,” Painter continued. “We as a team would not be where we are today if it were not for them and I cannot overemphasize their contribution to this win. The entire Gardnertown polo community has played such a monumental role in helping us achieve the national championship win this year, so the victory is just as much theirs as it is ours.”
Tournament participants elected Josephine Dorsey, Winston Painter, Lance Stefanakis, and Vlad Tarashansky to the All-Star team, each receiving a watch from USPA Global Licensing. Esteban Penados (WTR) was selected as the Sportsmanship Award recipient.
Recognized for his horsemanship both inside and outside the arena, Oliver Wheatley (Lakeside) was presented with the Horsemanship Award and flew home with a brand new saddle. Mini, owned by Virginia Polo, was the highest scoring horse of the tournament for her spectacular play and UVA 2 was awarded Best Playing String.
The Open National Interscholastic Championship is the crowning achievement of an interscholastic player’s career.
“It was a very exciting week for high school polo teams around the country to be able to compete in this tournament and the Virginia Polo Center is the perfect venue for such an event,” said UVA coach Lou Lopez. “I had the opportunity to observe Vlad Tarashansky who is one of my recruits. He will make an excellent addition to our UVA squad and I’m looking forward to a fantastic collegiate season.”
The Intercollegiate/Interscholastic staff would like to thank Virginia Polo, Garrison Forest School, Triangle Polo Club and David Brooks, Myopia Polo Club and Work to Ride for providing fantastic horses for the teams to play in the tournament. They would also like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the umpiring crew of John Bianco, Stan Feldman, Mike VanDerwerken and Bradley Biddle. Last, but certainly not least, the tournament would have not been possible without the Virginia Polo facilities and the tireless work of Lou Lopez and Grace Burgert.