Six teams of young women faced off at the New Bridge Polo Club in Aiken, South Carolina, May 18-22, for the chance to be crowned the Girls’ National Interscholastic Champion.
Poway Polo Club (Remi Glasgow, Marisa Carelli, Jasmine Lu, Sydney Morris) from Poway, California, coached by Sherry Sheldon Gibson, and Gardnertown Polo Club (Elizabeth Leudesdorff, Saralyn Painter, Mary Duncan, Sammi Iahn) from Newburgh, New York, coached by Bill Dencker, were the first teams to step into the beautiful outdoor arena. Saralyn Painter put Gardnertown on the board with two scores from the field. Morris traded goals with Duncan, finishing off the first chukker’s scoring with Gardnertown sporting a three-goal lead. Gardnertown held Poway scoreless in the second and increased its lead to eight at the half with scores from Duncan and Painter. The shutout continued into the third chukker while Painter continued her barrage of goals, adding four points to Gardnertown’s tally, including a two-pointer. Painter and Morris traded field goals in the fourth before Leudesdorff’s shot found the goal a final time for Gardnertown. Lu added a final goal for Poway before the horn sounded, but Gardnertown had sealed the win, 15-3. The win earned Gardnertown a spot in the semi-final round against top-seeded Aiken Polo Club (Summer Kneece, Sophia Grant, Robyn Leitner, Reagan Leitner), coached by Tiger Kneece.
The ladies from the Houston Polo Club (Bridget Price, Lily Lequerica, Abigail Benton, Isabel Artzer, Madison Burba, Quin van der Hoeven, Mila Cocco) in Houston, Texas, coached by Mark Prinsloo, came out swinging against the Sutter Buttes Polo Club (Simone Harper, Liliana Gonzalez, Caroline Mathews, Elise Pardue) in Yuba City, California, coached by Bonnie Magill, in the second game of the day. Lequerica was the lone scorer of the first chukker, putting her team ahead, 3-0. Gonzalez put Sutter Buttes on the board in the second chukker and teammate Pardue sunk an open goal penalty shot to bring their team back within a single score. Price found the goal for the first time to extend the Houston lead, but the ponies knocked one in for Sutter Buttes, leaving the difference one heading into halftime, 4-3.
Price scored again in the third chukker for the Texans, but Mathews and Pardue found pay dirt to even the score heading into the last chukker. Gonzalez and Pardue gave their team an early two-goal lead in the fourth chukker, but the Houston team would not give up. The horses scored again to bring the teams within one and a last second foul put Benton on the line for Houston. Her ace shot sent the teams into a shoot-out. Mathews and Pardue found their marks in overtime and Sutter Buttes moved on to the semi-final round to face Maryland Polo Club (Kylie Beard, Sierra Blevins, Jordan Peterson) from Jarrettsville, Maryland, coached by Kelly Wells.
Aiken Polo Club stepped into the arena for the first time in Thursday’s semi-final game against Gardnertown. Aiken took an early lead with a six-goal barrage spread evenly between Kneece, Grant and Robyn Leitner. Leudesdorff added the single score for Gardnertown, ending the chukker, 6-1. Kneece was the lone scorer for Aiken in the second chukker, adding five points to their tally. Leudesdorff added her second and third goals for Gardnertown, ending the first half, 11-3, in favor of Aiken. Aiken held Gardnertown scoreless in the third chukker while adding three Grant goals. A final Leudesdorff score could not overcome four shared goals between Kneece, Grant and Reagan Leitner, capping off the Aiken win, 18-4, and sending the team to the national final for the first time in their program’s history.
Maryland Polo Club moved directly to the semi-final round against Sutter Buttes when the Maui Polo Club (Laura Coflin, Sunny Diller, Emily Coflin, Elizabeth Miranda, Nophia Pintor, Leah Melzer, Jayci Jay Magalianes) was unable to make the trip to the tournament. The California team came out strong behind two penalty scores from Pardue. Peterson answered with a Penalty 2 of her own and teammate Beard scored a field goal to finish the first chukker tied 2-2. Two goals each from Jordan and Beard gave Maryland its first lead of the game, while Harper kept Sutter Buttes in the game with a field goal. Maryland held a three-goal difference, 6-3, heading into halftime.
Beard opened the scoring in the third with a shot from the field. Peterson and Mathews traded tallies to keep the difference at four goals, but a persistent Maryland defense held Sutter Buttes scoreless for the rest of the chukker. Blevins put her name on the score sheet with a huge two-pointer to finish out the third, 10-4. In identical fashion, Maryland outscored Sutter Buttes, 4-1, in the final chukker, sealing a 14-5 victory and sending their program on its 19th trip to the Girls’ National Championship final.
Houston Polo Club and Poway Polo Club battled it out in a friendly consolation match on Friday night, with Houston coming away with the win under the lights.
The final took place on Saturday evening, May 22, as both teams competed for the most important trophy of their interscholastic careers. Claiming the first three goals of the game, Aiken commanded the scoreboard from the opening throw in as Maryland Polo Club’s Blevins added one to the tally. Holding Maryland scoreless throughout the second chukker, Aiken continued to gain offensive momentum with Kneece adding three consecutive goals for her team.
“Our strategy was to be aggressive, communicate and really take our time with the ball,” Kneece said. Following an impressive display of team play and skill, Aiken Polo Club moved into halftime with a comfortable 8-1 lead.
Hammering in her sixth goal to open the second half, Kneece was met by strong resistance from Peterson, who fired back with four goals for Maryland, including a two-pointer. Contributing a series of goals to the scoreboard, Aiken remained solid and consistently strong throughout the remainder of the game.
“I think the order of our horses really helped,” Robyn Leitner commented. “I started in the second chukker on Miley, who is my favorite to play and a great mare to get me into the start of the game. I ended on Shorty in the fourth, who can be a little strong at times, but he played well for me having already played one chukker.”
Holding a seven-goal lead entering the final chukker, Aiken was relentless in its pursuit of its first national title with Kneece picking up three additional goals. Highly effective at Back, Grant closed out the final with a pair of goals to sweep another decisive victory, 17-5. Capping off a great evening of polo, the team extended the celebration to the New Bridge clubhouse where they enjoyed a team dinner.
“We wanted to keep the game as open as possible and play to the strength of each teammate,” Grant said about her team’s strategy.
“Summer is very good offensively so we wanted to keep her up in front receiving passes and scoring goals. Robyn and Reagan are really good in the middle and work hard taking the man. I thought I could make the greatest contribution by playing Back. I planned to shut down Maryland’s offense and hit back shots and passes up to my teammates, trusting that they would score the goals.”
“Another strategy was our lineups for the throw ins,” Grant continued. “When we were on the good side of the throw in, I would line up next to the umpire. This positioning would let me jump on the ball and get the play going towards our goal.”
Splitting a position with her identical twin sister, Robyn Leitner was proud of what the girls had accomplished together. “This win was a huge compliment for my team and represented Aiken’s youth players,” she said. “Being a part of such a great team, [that] made Aiken’s first GNIS trophy happen, was an honor. I am going to miss playing with Sophie next year!”
Claiming her fourth Girls’ National Interscholastic Championship, Grant felt this win was particularly special as team captain. “I won the first three championships (2016, 2018, 2019) with my two older sisters, Abbie and Maddie, on Maryland,” Grant said. “But having the opportunity to come to Aiken and lead such a young team and the new Aiken Youth Polo organization to a national title is especially gratifying. I’m so thankful to have such a supportive coach, teammates and family to finish this exciting journey of high school arena polo.”
“Winning the championship means so much because our team has been working for this moment for so long,” Summer Kneece said. “We prepared by having many practices with our coach—my dad—and we’ve also been playing grass polo, which helped us.”
Summer’s father was proud of the team, especially his daughter. “It was a great feeling to coach my daughter in this championship tournament,” he said. “We started this journey together four years ago and it’s a dream come true.”
The tournament participants selected Aiken’s Summer Kneece and Sophie Grant, Gardnertown’s Saralyn Painter and Maryland’s Jordan Peterson as tournament all-stars, each receiving watches provided by USPA Global Licensing. Maryland’s Kylie Beard was selected as the Sportsmanship Award winner and Summer Kneece took home the horsemanship award. Best Playing Pony honors went to Chunky Monkey, owned by UVA, and the UVA-1 string was awarded Best Playing String.
Thank you to the wonderful hosts at New Bridge Polo Club, Raza Kazmi, Aiken Youth Polo and Tiger Kneece. The incredible horses were provided by Aiken Youth Polo, DI Polo, Berube Polo and UVA. Umpires included Tom Wisehart, John Bianco, Ronnie Hayes, Brent Mirikitani and Bradley Biddle.