VIVA VALIENTE: Cambiaso delivers in U.S. Open Championship.

The 2015 National Intercollegiate Championships played out just as teams, coaches and spectators had hoped—fast, close and thrilling. Six of the seven games played were decided by three goals or less. Teams from around the United States converged on the University of Connecticut’s Horsebarn Hill arena in Storrs, from April 6-11, all trying to attain that elusive final win, and be crowned the 2015 National Intercollegiate Champions.

Men’s NIC For the men, it was Colorado State University coming from behind most of the game to best Texas A&M 20-17 in the final. It was a remarkable comeback for the team that competes without a coach, and has not won the title since 1999. “This is truly a 100 percent studentrun organization. The students do everything. All of their competitors have fulltime coaches and horse caretakers,” Jason Bruemmer, a professor in the CSU Equine Science program and the team’s faculty advisor wrote on the polo team’s website.

Like all the competitors, preparing for the national championship while juggling a full schedule of classes is difficult. Rosser explained, “Preparing for the NIC was no easy task for the team. It was long hours spent at the barn preparing and anticipating a moment we all dreamt about. We practiced two to three days a week for four or five hours each practice ... For some of us it was very challenging trying to manage school and practice. “The challenge was getting home at 11 p.m., exhausted from practice, and having to study for an exam the following morning. Trying to stay focused on school and realizing an opportunity to win a national title was distracting at times, but we all were disciplined enough to balance both.”

All the dedication and hard work was worth it when the two teams met in the final. That match turned out to be the explosive game spectators anticipated. The Aggies came out swinging, scoring five goals between its three players before the Rams got on the board. Cacho Galindo and Casey Woodfin added another goal apiece before Kareem Rosser notched his first score, ending the chukker 7-2 in favor of TAMU.

Rosser and teammate Alex Kokesh put up the first three goals to start the second chukker for CSU. The teams traded goals before Casey Woodfin put in a huge two-point shot for the Aggies. There was yet another flurry of goals between the teams, but at the half the Aggies retained its lead, 12-8.

Rosser explained, “The toughest part of the championship was overcoming the deficits we faced each game. Not having a coach put more pressure on us as a team because we were forced to figure things out on our own. Unlike most teams, with coaches on the sidelines correcting the team’s mistakes, it was just us players correcting each other.”

Dalton Woodfin was the lone scorer for TAMU in the third, putting in two from the penalty line and one from the field, but the Rams were finding their stride. Kokesh added four goals to CSU’s total, including a two-point shot, while Jared Berg and Rosser each scored and a pony knocked in another goal to tie the match heading into the fourth and final chukker.

The teams began the final seven-anda-half minutes trading goals, until a pony goal put CSU up by one. Berg scored another to extend the Ram’s lead, but Galindo countered with a tally for the Aggies. Berg and Rosser sealed the deal with two more goals to bring home the silver for CSU.

The camaraderie the team shared is a great reason why we were successful. We all understood the concept of team and success would not come if we were not all on the same page,” Rosser said. “We were able to build a bond that made us great friends outside the arena and ultimately built trust, allowing us to believe in each other.”

Cacho Galindo (TAMU), Kareem Ross-er (CSU), Ignacio Masias (Cornell), and Maxi Langlois (SMU) were named tournament all stars. Dalton Woodfin (TAMU) was given the Connie Upchurch Sportsmanship award by his peers. Strings for the tournament were provided by Skidmore College, UConn, and UVa. Going two for two, the ponies from Cornell University were named Best Playing String and their gelding, Pico, was voted Best Playing Pony.

Being named an All-Star was a great accomplishment, however without my teammates, I would not have been able to do as well as I did,” said Rosser. “I was just happy to share this special moment with all the guys who worked hard all year to win a national title.”

The five teams were about as close as you can get, evidenced by Southern Methodist University edging University of Virginia by just two goals in the first match and both semifinals being decided in penalty shootouts, making the championship one of the best in years. The competition started days early with SMU men, coached by Tom Goodspeed, and UVa men, coached by Lou Lopez, meeting on Monday evening.

SMU came out swinging with four goals between Maxi Langlois and Manuel Ituarte before UVa’s Eddie Lopez got the Cavaliers on the board. Three more scores from Lopez and a pair from Ituarte finished the chukker 6-4 in favor of SMU. Langlois began the scoring again in the second, but Lopez quickly countered with a penalty conversion. Aristide Faggionato jumped in on the scoring for UVa before Michael Armour followed up with two in a row for the Mustangs. Cavalier’s Santiago Marulanda closed out the scoring before the half, converting a penalty and scoring from the field, ending the chukker 9-8 in SMU’s favor.

The teams traded goals to begin the third, but after a two-pointer from J.T. Shiverick, the Mustangs pulled away by four. Lopez’s sharp shooting at the penalty line kept UVa in the game, but still trailing by three going into the fourth. Faggionato began the scoring in the final chukker, but Shiverick and Langlois added three for SMU before UVa counted a pony goal. Shiverick scored the final goal for the Mustangs while the Cavaliers battled back with a two-pointer from Lopez and a final goal from Marulanda. SMU’s defense held out to the end, taking the 20-18 victory and advancing to the semifinal game against CSU.

CSU and SMU met in the first of two exciting semifinal games. While coach Tom Goodspeed got his players ready, the CSU team tried to stay relaxed. Ituarte struck first for the Mustangs, but the Rams quickly fell in step with goals from Kareem Rosser and Alex Kokesh. The teams tallied four goals each to end the chukker 6-5 in favor of CSU. Rosser began the scoring in the second, but a goal by Ituarte and a pony goal put SMU up by one. Rosser followed up with four goals, two from the field and two from the penalty line, to reclaim the lead, but in the final minutes of the half, Ituarte and Langlois evened the score at 11-all.

Carly Persano, who plays for the UConn women’s team, didn’t hesitate when she was asked who was standing out in the game. “Kareem Rosser. He is really playing well, scoring the majority of goals and making a lot of smart plays.”

Rosser’s teammates also called him the team’s “Big Stick” but the humble Rosser reminded us that polo is not a one-man team. He converted four penalties in the third, added to a goal by Kokesh, but SMU answered back with five goals from Shiverick and two each from Langlois and Ituarte, putting the Mustangs up 21-17. Kokesh and a pony goal opened the scoring in the fourth, closing the gap to two. Langlois sandwiched goals around a pair from Rosser to keep the gap at two. Rosser put in another from the field and sank a penalty shot to knot the score and force the first shootout of the week. Langlois was the lone scorer for SMU in the tie breaker, while Berg and Rosser’s shots sent CSU to the final.

In the other semifinal, Texas A&M University, with coach Mike McCleary, met Cornell University, with coach David Eldredge, in the late game. TAMU’s Dalton Woodfin and Cacho Galindo started off the scoring with a goal apiece. Cornell countered with a team effort, garnering goals from Ignacio Masias, Nick Stieg, and Alex Langlois to go up by one. Galindo put the Aggies back on top with a deep two-pointer and Woodfin added another from the penalty line. Cornell wouldn’t be shut down, and tied the score with a goal from the field from Stieg and another from the penalty line from Masias to close the chukker 5-5. The teams traded goals to begin the second, until the Aggies found their stride with scores from Galindo and Casey Woodfin, putting TAMU up 13-9 heading into the half.

Though Galindo got the scoring started in the third, Cornell began to close the gap with goals from Masias and Hakan Karabey. A pony goal finished out the scoring in the third chukker, leaving TAMU up 15-12. The fourth chukker would prove to be another battle, as Masias, Karabey, and a pony goal

quickly evened the score for the Big Red. Dalton Woodfin and Galindo put the Aggies back up by two, but Masias went on a streak with four goals for Cornell to put it in the lead. The Woodfin brothers iced a penalty shot apiece to send the game to a shootout. Masias was the lone scorer for the Big Red, while the Woodfin brothers were clutch again, securing the win for the Aggies and advancing them to the final.

Women’s NIC

For the women, Cornell University and University of Virginia faced off in the final of the National Intercollegiate Championship for the fifth year in a row. While UVa took the trophies for the past three years, Cornell fought back to take the 17-16 win in the final moments of the match.

The rivalry between these teams has gone on for much longer. Cornell coach David Eldredge said, “These two programs have been battling it out for years, having played each other in the final now 15 times, with Cornell holding a slight 9-6 edge in wins. That is 15 out of 40 total chances in which these teams have met. Cornell has played in 31 finals, UVa has played in 19 finals. There have only been five final matches in 40 held that neither Cornell nor UVa were a part of, so it is not just the past five years.”

In the final, UVa’s Julia Smith struck first, but Cornell’s entire squad pitched in, scoring two apiece, before Smith could strike again. The chukker finished with the Big Red up over UVa, 7-2. In the second, Smith put up five goals around a pair of Penalty 1 calls to draw within two until Devin Cox and Anna Winslow widened the gap with a goal apiece. A two-point Penalty 1 in favor of the Cavaliers closed the gap again, but Cornell held the 11-9 lead at the half.

UConn was feeling confident at this point in the game. “... UVa had our number most of the year, but once we got healthy, we figured out how to play UVa and knew we could beat them. ... It was the knowledge there were going to be no runaway games and that if close, we had the confidence we could finish,” said Coach Eldredge.

The third proved to be a defensive battle with UVa adding only a field goal and a penalty score to its tally. Meanwhile, Cox and Winslow evaded Katie Mitcham and Mary Collins at defense to score, added to a pony goal, to end the third chukker with Cornell holding on to a slim 14-11 lead. Smith started the scoring in the fourth, and Collins quickly added another to pull the Cavaliers within one. A Penalty 1 in favor of Cornell put the Big Red back up by two.

UVa fought back with a two-pointer from Collins to tie the score and a goal from Smith took the lead. Emma Eldredge tied the game in the final minute and Winslow immediately followed with a goal. The teams ran back to the center for the umpire’s throw-in but the final buzzer sounded just after the ball left his hand, giving Cornell the title.

Coach Eldredge explained how this year was different. “Honestly, they had a different team and so did we. The recent match-ups have been just as close as this one. For the last two years these three teams (with UConn) have been beating on one another throughout the school year. It has been said before and likely will be said again, ‘a different week might have a different outcome.’ This happened to be our week. I think the most gratifying thing for myself is that there are no doubts. We beat UConn on their home turf and then took the threetime champs and beat them. This was not the easy route, and though it made it tough, it made it feel even better.”

Julia Smith (UVa), Anna Winslow (Cornell), Audry Persano (UConn), and Carly Persano (UConn) were tournament All-Stars. Carina Deck (OSU) received the Connie Upchurch Sportsmanship award by her peers. While strings from Yale University, UConn, and UVa were provided, the ponies from Cornell University were named Best Playing String and their mare, Missionera, and UVa’s Gaucha, tied for Best Playing Pony.

After the match, SMU coach Tom Goodspeed complimented the teams, saying, “This was an incredible game. This isn’t women’s polo, this is polo. You could take a video of this game, put it on the USPA website to be an instructional video on how to play arena polo. These gals, Cornell, UVa, both fantastic teams. ...”

Cornell’s season got off to a rough start. Devin Cox injured her knee before the fall season and could only play the last two fall games, leaving only a few games for the team to gel before regionals. Then, Anna Winslow injured her back in the second spring game, sidelining her for two and a half weeks.

The women knew their jobs, they just needed the time together,” explained coach Eldredge. “We were fortunate, I guess, that one of the other strong teams in the country, UConn, is in our region. We played them four times in the regular season, fighting out wins in three of them. We knew we were going to have to beat them at regionals and even then, there was the likelihood of matching up again in nationals.”

The competition began with the Western Regional champions, Oregon State University, facing off against the Central Regional champions, Texas A&M University, coached by Mike McCleary.

Celine Henke began the scoring for TAMU, and was quickly followed up by teammate Lara Straussfeld to put the Aggies up by two. OSU was not about to be shutout, and with goals from Nicole Johnson and Carina Deck, evened the score. Aggie Kendall Plank went on a three score run to put TAMU up 5-2 after the first. The teams traded goals to begin the second, until Deck and Mariah Mudgett pulled the Beavers within one. A flurry of goals from Henke and Straussfeld, and one final goal from Deck, kept the gap at three heading into halftime.

With the addition of TAMU’s Hollie Boggess, the second half became a defensive battle. OSU’s Mudgett made sure her team’s lone score of the chukker was doubly effective by making it a two-pointer, but TAMU’s Plank sunk a penalty shot to keep the Aggies up by two. Straussfeld struck first in the fourth, but Deck kept OSU within two with a score of her own. Straussfeld and Plank both struck again before a pony put in a goal for OSU, ending the game 13-10 with the Aggies advancing to the semifinals.

The first women’s semifinal pitted the defending champion University of Virginia, coached by Lou Lopez, against Texas A&M University. The Cavaliers started off with a bang, scoring five unanswered goals before Plank answered with the Aggies first score. UVA quickly followed up with a Katie Mitcham goal and a spectacular two-point shot from Julia Smith. Smith and Plank traded goals before Plank ended the chukker with her own two-pointer, leaving the Cavaliers up 10-4.

The second chukker played out much the same way the first ended, with both teams trading goals until Smith put up another two-point goal. Mitcham closed out the half with a goal from the field to put UVa up 14-5. TAMU’s Henke opened the scoring in the second half with a penalty score, then UVa countered with a goal each from Mitcham, Smith, and Mary Collins. Plank sank a goal before the Cavaliers added three more to its total to end the chukker 20-7. Henke and Straussfeld scored three between them to begin to close the gap in the fourth, but staunch defense and goals from Collins and Mitcham gave the Cavaliers a 22-10 win and a spot in the National Championship final.

The second semifinal would be a rematch of the Northeastern Regional final, pitting regional champion Cornell against the UConn, coached by Jon Nicholson.

Cornell’s Anna Winslow began the scoring and UConn’s Carly Persano quickly countered. Winslow and Emma Eldredge put up three goals between them before UConn could garner goals from Carly Persano, Sara Tufts and Audrey Persano to tie the score. Carly Persano added one more before the horn to put the Huskies up 5-4 after one. Devin Cox began the scoring in the second for Cornell, evening the score at five. The teams traded goals until Carly Persano and Tufts knocked two in to end the half 9-7 in favor of the Huskies.

The third chukker started with Audrey Persano and Eldredge exchanging goals before Winslow wrapped six goals around a Carly Persano two-pointer. Cox finished out the scoring in the third, putting Cornell up 15-13. The ponies kicked off the scoring in the fourth, putting Cornell up by three, but the Persano sisters each added a tally to pull within one. Eldredge and Audrey Persano traded goals again, but Winslow knocked in the final goal, giving Cornell a 19-17 victory and a trip to the final.

Coach Eldredge explained this game was the toughest part of the championship. “Playing UConn on their home turf in the semis barely edges out playing three-time defending champ UVa in the final,” he said. “And, I mean barely, maybe by the thickness of a horse tail hair because both matches were extremely tough. Playing UConn on their home turf with a huge, hostile crowd was very tough to do. But, as I say, that only made it so we got to take on the threetime champ.”

Coach Eldredge continued, “When two teams are as close as Cornell and UConn had been, that meant having to beat them five out of six times in the same year—very tough to do. It came down to the mental part for all of our women. Each one of them knew they could win. They had survived being down by one with 45 seconds left in the game at UConn in the regular season, where Cornell took the throw-in from UConn’s 15-yard line, down the arena to score with four seconds left, then won in a shootout.

That win was key for them mentally the rest of the season. They knew no matter how tough, ahead or behind, they could win when the odds were against them. So, though their physical skills, teamwork and each knowing and accepting their roles were important, the mental aspect was top of the list, and they had that part down.”

The ceremonies began with a demonstration by the UConn Morgan Drill team and a performance by UConn’s a cappella group, Extreme Measures. Activities were spread throughout the week to keep the student athletes engaged in between tournament duties and school work. An ice cream social, with selections from the UConn Dairy Bar, was held after the tournament meeting where students were encouraged to mingle and fill out their I/I tournament bracket. Congratulations to CSU’s Alex Kokesh, who had the most accurate bracket and received a new over girth as a prize!

On Friday night, teams supported the alumni at the second annual Feldman Cup. The week was capped off by a wonderful dinner at Mill on the River on Saturday night.

The 2015 NIC will long be remembered for the two shootouts in the men’s semifinals and the other incredibly competitive games that came before and after,” commented I/I Chairman Duncan Huyler. “But, the other huge factor in this wonderful tournament was the magnificent facilities at the University of Connecticut and the amazing efforts put forth by the UConn polo family—students, staff and volunteers—including Doc and Peg Dinger, Jon and Kathryn Nicholson, Dr. Steven Zinn, John Bennett and Cecile Baccanale. In their inaugural hosting of the NIC, UConn could not have provided the USPA I/I Program with a better tournament.”

The I/I team also extends its heartfelt thanks to Dr. Alfredo Sanchez of Tufts Ambulatory Service, the University of Connecticut Fire Department, the UConn Morgan Drill team, the UConn a cappella group, Extreme Measures, and the wonderful umpiring team of Bradley Biddle, Robert Lyn-Kee-Chow, Matt Syme and Tom Wisehart.

While Devin Cox graduates this year, Cornell will be back looking to defend its title in 2016. Anna Winslow and Emma Eldredge will be joined by 2015 alternate Elena Wicker. “[Elena] got a lot of playing time with the aforementioned injuries. She played very well and we won some tough games with her in the lineup,” explained coach Eldredge.

  MEN'S   WOMEN'S  
 

Colorado State
Kareem Rosser
Jared Berg
Alex Kokesh
Andrew
Wildermuth
James Dodge

Cornell
Hakan Karabey
Alex Langlois
Nicholas Stieg
Ignacio Masias
Kamran Pirasteh

Southern Methodist
Maxi Langlois
JT Shiverick
Michael Armour
Manuel Ituarte
Tristan Smyth

 

Texas A&M
Casey Woodfin
Cacho Galindo
Dalton Woodfin
Juan Zermeno
Kyle Hamilton
Gideo Kotkowski
Connor Snow

University of Virginia
Merrall Echezarreta
Eddie Lopez
Santiago Marulanda
Aristide Faggionato
Devin Jones

 

Cornell
Elena Wicker
Devin Cox
Anna Winslow
Emma Eldredge
Claire Stieg

Oregon State
Nicole Johnson
Carina Deck
Mariah Mudgett
Emily McGaffey
Mekayla Means Brous

Texas A&M
Hollie Boggess
Kendall Plank
Lara Straussfeld
Celine Henke

 

University of Connecticut
Sara Tufts
Audrey Persano
Carly Persano
Kara Googins
Julia Bedos
Roberta Bigelow
Audriana Finney
Tessa Kell
Lauren Pfahler
Nora Young

University of Virginia
Mary Collins
Katie Mitcham
Caroline Hardie
Julia Smith

 
                 

By Gwen Rizzo • Photos by Mike Ryan Kylie Sheehan contributed to this article.

 
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