LEADERS IN THEIR FIELD: Hawaii Polo Life captures U.S. Women’s Open.

Team remains in contention for $1 million purse.

K?lia i ka nu’u is a Hawaiian proverb meaning strive to reach the highest. For the women on the Hawaii Polo Life team, they did just that with ease, winning the U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship, one of the most prestigious women’s polo competitions in the U.S.

It was the first time it was held in Wellington, Florida. It had been played during Houston Polo Club’s fall season since 2011 when it was recognized as a national event. This year, preliminary rounds were scheduled at Port Mayaca Polo Club in Okeechobee, Florida, while the final was held on International Polo Club’s Field No. 1.

Eight teams competed in the event, which was sponsored by Susan G. Komen. The leading breast cancer foundation, Komen was founded by former polo player Nancy Brinker in 1982 and named for her sister who died of breast cancer in 1980 at the age of 36.

This year’s event drew professional players from the U.S., Argentina, England and Kenya. Cedar Croft and BTA/The Villages boasted all-American line-ups. The tournament kicked off with a draw party at International Polo Club on the evening of Mar. 13.

The tournament was played in a double elimination format. After the first round of matches on Mar 16-17, Cabo Wabo, Hawaii Polo Life, San Saba and Crossfit El Cit counted wins. Sunday’s games were moved from Port Mayaca to IPC due to rain. Inclement weather also postponed the second round a day. The same four teams won their second games, although BTA/The Villages made it difficult on Hawaii Polo Life, succumbing by just a goal.

The semifinals pitted Cabo Wabo against San Saba and Hawaii Polo Life against Crossfit El Cid. In a tight first match, Cabo Wabo got the best of San Saba, 6-5. Hawaii Polo Life cruised to a 9-3 victory against Crossfit El Cid.

The final was played on Saturday, Mar. 23 between Cabo Wabo and Hawaii Polo Life, both rated 22-goals (women’s handicaps). With veteran players as their coaches—Julio Arellano for Cabo Wabo and Adolfo Cambiaso for Hawaii Polo Life—the undefeated teams were prepared for battle and feeling confident.

Hawaii Polo Life’s Mia Cambiaso and Nina Clarkin, accounting for 17 of the team’s 22 goals, have played together before, having won the Argentine Women’s Open together the last two years. Anja Jacobs and Pamela Flanagan rounded out the team. Cabo Wabo’s Hazel Jackson-Gaona knows the Cambiaso-Clarkin duo well, falling to them, 9-8, in the most recent Argentine Women’s Open, but her outstanding efforts led the Argentine Polo Association to elevate her handicap to 10. She was joined by rising young star Hope Arellano and Gillian Johnston, who have played numerous tournaments together. Roni Duke completed the line-up.

It didn’t take Clarkin long—seconds in fact–to put Hawaii Polo Life on the board after capitalizing on a pass from Cambiaso, who followed with a goal of her own. A Penalty 4 conversion late in the chukker put Hawaii ahead, 3-0. Chukker 2 began with a Penalty 2 in favor of Hawaii, which Clarkin slipped between the posts. Instead of staying in its groove, Hawaii began making mistakes, which Cabo Wabo took full advantage of. Jackson-Gaona converted three of four Penalty 2s in the next five minutes. The interruptions briefly stopped Hawaii’s momentum, ending the half with Hawaii holding a narrow 4-3 lead.

The teams each missed Penalty 4 opportunities, before Cambiaso jumped on a mis-calculated knockin with just over four minutes left in the third, putting the ball between the posts. Arellano responded with a run to goal. The teams battled back and forth before Clarkin got past all the defenders to find the posts, putting Hawaii up by two, 6-4.

Early in the fourth, Arellano, on Best Playing Pony Got Milk, made a run but Clarkin shut her down close to goal. Arellano responded in kind as Cambiaso approached their goal. After a melee, Clarkin powered the ball through the posts. Cambiaso capitalized on failed play after Jackson-Gaona accidentally hit into an umpire, escorting the ball between the posts.

Flanagan covered Jackson- Gaona well, making her work hard for every play and eating up valuable time. It also helped free up her teammates.

“If I could mark the opposing team’s best player and keep them out of the play with the horses I had and execute that job properly, I knew I would be helping my team,” she said. “Just focusing on that player and playing unselfish polo is something I really took away from this experience and how impactful that strategy can be for your team.”

In the waning minutes, Clarkin snagged back-to-back goals to put the game out of reach for Cabo Wabo. With :27 left on the clock, Jackson-Gaona ended the match on a good note by sending a Penalty 4 straight and true to end the game with Hawaii Polo Life ahead, 10-5.

Clarkin led Hawaii Polo Life with a game-high seven goals and took MVP honors. Cambiaso, who counted three goals, was presented with the Rising Star Award. For Cabo Wabo, Jackson-Gaona led with four, all from the penalty line. Arellano scored one.

“It’s amazing now to look back and think we’ve won, considering we nearly didn’t make it into the semifinals,” Clarkin said. “I knew that we had a good team and we hadn’t quite reached our potential yet, but in the semifinals we played well. All four of us played hard, worked for each other and the team really came together today and it showed.”

Flanagan was named MVP Amateur. “Today I played two horses I’d never been on before and Adolfo [Cambiaso] and Robertito [Zedda] told me to trust them,” Flanagan said. “They were the best horses I’ve ever been on in my life! One of the horses that Mia normally plays she passed to me and I passed my horses on to Anja Jacobs. We all shifted horses around and made it work for our position, which worked out beautifully. We were really organized, Nina was incredibly instrumental, and without the support of Valiente we wouldn’t have performed as we did.”

Clarkin was also happy with her string. “I was so well mounted. I was playing horses today that Adolfo Cambiaso plays, I mean what a dream,” Clarkin exclaimed. “I felt that they did everything I needed them to on the field. I think both teams were really well mounted and that showed in the speed of the game and the quality of the polo played today. Adolfo told me when he gave me the horses, ‘no excuses now,’ so I’m just pleased that I did my job!” Best Playing Pony honors were presented to Got Milk, Hope Arellano’s grey horse that she played in the first and third chukkers.

Chris Dawson, representing Hawaii Polo Life, expressed his excitement at being a part of promoting women’s polo through this sponsorship.

“First and foremost, this is an incredible opportunity for Hawaii Polo Life to support women’s polo,” he said. “In Hawaii, we love everyone so it’s a great opportunity for people to make friends while playing polo competitively and then build on it. I expect next year there will be more teams and more opportunities, and if we did that then we did our job.”

Clarkin echoed his sentiments on the overarching benefits to women’s polo. “For us to be able to play on platforms like these, IPC’s U.S. Polo Assn. Field and Palermo in Argentina, is great for women’s polo because its being given the exposure it deserves. Just look at the quality of the players in the game today—young players like Hope [Arellano], Mia [Cambiaso], and even Pam [Flanagan]. There are a lot of women coming through the sport who are very talented polo players and it’s only going to get better and better, she said.”

The well-oiled Hawaii Polo Life team was rooted in L?kahi, meaning people working together can achieve more.

-- By Gwen Rizzo

-- Photos by David Lominska/Polographics





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