ANYONE'S GAME
Pacific Coast high-goal season produces three winners.

Twice a year the USPA Handicap Committee, led by the recently-appointed California-based Dan Walker, diligently reviews players’ handicaps in an effort to keep polo fair and competitive. This year’s Pacific Coast high-goal season held at the Santa Barbara Polo Club in Carpinteria, California indicates the committee may be right on track. Eight 20-goal team combinations competed in the three tournaments that make up the Pacific Coast’s Triple Crown—the Robert Skene Memorial, the America Cup and the Pacific Coast Open. (Lyndon Lea’s Zacara team sat out the Skene.) Of the 43 games played over the season, nearly half were won by a single goal.

Last year Marc Ganzi’s Audi team, led by 10-goaler Gonzalo Pieres Jr, dominated Santa Barbara Polo Club’s high-goal season. The foursome single-handedly won all three 20-goal events with ease. This year was another story. With a new, redesigned team, Audi got off to a good start with wins in the warm-up Mayors and Bill Triller Memorial Cups, however it managed a win in just one of the three Triple Crown events. In fact, no one team dominated the season. Matches were so tight and teams so evenly matched, with few exceptions, it seemed every game could have easily gone either way. The downside of close competition is it sometimes leads to tensions, which spill over off the field. Polo manager Melanja Jones did a tremendous job of organizing the matches and keeping the peace.

The Robert Skene Memorial, sponsored by Veuve Cliquot, was played first. Grants Farm and Patagones were the only teams to finish the preliminaries without a loss giving them free passes to the final. Six of nine preliminary matches ended with just a goal separating the winners from the losers, including all three second-round games that were decided in sudden death overtime.

The final was just as close. Patagones jumped out of the shoot with five quick goals, three from Carlos Avendano and two from his brother Gonzalo Avendano. Their quick passes and crisp backshots seemed to leave Grants Farm flatfooted. But Grant’s Farm who had come from behind in its first two preliminary matches was more than up to the challenge. Jeff Hall put Grants Farm on the board in the second period with a penalty conversion. His Grants Farm teammate Sugar Erskine followed by stealing the ball on a Patagones knock-in and sending it through the goal. Hall found his rhythm and scored three more to tie the score at 5-5 at the half.

A Hall penalty conversion early in the fourth gave Grants Farm a first-time lead. Patagones responded with Carlos Avendano stealing the ball and passing to Carlos Gracida for the score. Hall took the ball from the ensuing line-up and ran to goal. He nearly put Grants Farm up by two, but Brandon Phillips stopped the ball just short of the goal line for the save. Grants Farm converted a Penalty 2 but Patagones responded with the tying goal from Gonzalo Avendano.

Hall took back the lead with a bullet to goal, but Patagones shot back with a Penalty 2 conversion. With the teams in a stalemate with just over a minute left, Carlos Gracida took the ball coast to coast. Grants Farm players blocked the ball on three separate attempts at goal but Gracida somehow managed to recover with more than a little help from Ducati, his handy white-faced mare. The umpire’s whistle stopped play giving Gracida a free hit in front of the goal, which he easily converted. The teams had only enough time to make it back to the lineup before the final bell rang, giving Patagones the victory. Not bad for a team making its California debut!

Jeff Hall took Most Valuable Player honors and was high-scorer with eight goals. The five-year-old Thoroughbred Ducati took Best Playing Pony after carrying Gracida in the third and sixth chukkers, including the crucial gamewinning play. In the consolation, Lucchese defeated Audi 9-8 with Mike Azzaro contributing eight goals for the win.

Patagones carried over its good fortune into the next event, the USPA America Cup, sponsored by Lucchese. Grants Farm, however, succumbed to an improving Audi team 16-12. Audi went on to win its next two games in Bracket I, finishing as the only team to go undefeated. Bracket II finished with ERG, Lucchese and Patagones each sporting 2-1 records. The other team in the bracket, Zacara, was unable to overcome its opponents, though they finished just a goal behind in two matches. Lucchese took the bracket’s top spot, and the final spot opposite Audi, for a rematch of the Skene consolation.

With a lot of vocal supporters on both sides, it seemed like half of Dallas flew in to support John Muse’s Lucchese team chanting, “Go Lucchese” even before the game started. As the stands filled, the Air Force Color Guard from Vandenberg Air Force base performed prior to the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.

Both teams converted penalty shots in the opening minutes of the first chukker. Audi’s Kris Kampsen tapped in a field goal after jumping on a pass from Juan Bollini. Lucchese’s Julio Gracida responded with a Penalty 2 conversion. Kampsen scored again followed by a goal from teammate Luis Escobar. Mike Azzaro ended the chukker with a 60-yard penalty. Audi took the momentum in the second with three goals in a row—two from Escobar and another from Kampsen. Azzaro added a pair to keep Lucchese in the game. Kampsen converted a pair of Penalty 2s in the third while Lucchese was held to a Penalty 4 conversion from Azzaro. Audi held a comfortable 9-6 lead at the half.

Lucchese battled back in the fourth. Gracida and Azzaro each converted a penalty and scored from the field but Audi kept up the pressure and added goals from Kampsen and Bollini—Bollini’s an impressive neckshot from 135-yards-out along the boards with seconds remaining—to hang on to the lead. Kampsen scored two more in the fifth and Escobar one before Lucchese found the goal thanks to John Muse and Gracida. Trailing 12-14 going into the final period Lucchese tried to keep up. A missed penalty 2 was a crushing blow for the eager Lucchese team. Kampsen meanwhile, appeared to be everywhere on the field, moving the ball in front of Lucchese’s goal, and eventually scoring on a Penalty 2. Bollini’s interception of a Lucchese backshot allowed him to break free of the pack and score an insurance goal. Audi proudly retained the America Cup title.

Kampsen, who hustled from start to finish and scored a game-high nine goals, was awarded Most Valuable Player. Horizon, Mike Azzaro’s pretty grey mare took Best Playing Pony honors. The subsidiary final pitted Grants Farm against Patagones in a rematch of the Skene final. This time Grants Farm came out on top, 14-10.

The finale Pacific Coast Open, sponsored by Bombardier, had two teams in each bracket with 2-1 records, and two teams with 1-2 records. The teams with 2-1 records advanced to the semifinal where ERG met Mansour and Grants Farm challenged Patagones, yet again. In the first semi, Mansour struck first, but ERG responded. In the second period, the teams traded goals but Mansour held a 1-goal advantage. It increased their lead to two in the third to end the half ahead 6-4. After the break, ERG was energized and Jeff Blake and Paco de Narvaez combined for three goals while holding Mansour to one to knot the match at 7-7. Blake and de Narvaez repeated their performance in the fifth while Mansour was silenced. Three Penalty 2 conversions in the final period allowed Mansour to get back in the game, but ERG scored a penalty to keep the lead and advance to the final.

The other semifinal had the teams battling for position in a running game, but in the end it came down to penalty shots. The lion’s share of the scoring came from the penalty line. Jeff Hall scored all but one of Grants Farm’s goals and eight of those were from the undefended penalty line. Carlos Gracida scored seven of 11 goals, six from the penalty line. Grants Farm trailed 6-7 at the half, but six goals in the second half to Patagones’ four gave Grants Farm the lead and the other final spot.

The Pacific Coast Open final is always the highlight of the summer. Spectators come out in droves to see and be seen. The final was a battle to the finish with Grants Farm coming from behind to take the 13-11 win. Jeff Hall scored two goals in the first for Grants Farm, but Paco de Narvaez and Gonzalo Deltour scored for ERG. Hall and teammate Sugar Erskine split the uprights in the second while Jeff Blake tapped in a Penalty 2 for ERG. ERG took the momentum in the third with four goals including a memorable one from Blake, which he carried nearly the length of the field on his nearside, plowing through a defensive hook before necking it to goal. Pedro Falabella and Andy Busch scored to keep the game close. ERG led 7-6 at the half.

The teams got rolling in the fourth but the scoring was limited to one from Deltour for ERG and two Penalty 2 conversions from Hall for Grants Farm. ERG outscored Grants Farm 2-1 to take a narrow lead at the end of the fifth. De Narvaez converted a safety early in the sixth, taking a 9-11 lead. Jones wrote, “To Grants Farm the score read 9-11, emergency!” ERG soon lost momentum as Busch, Hall and Erskine battled back, each scoring. Erskine’s goal had him hitting the ball out of the air three times for the 12-11 lead with just over a minute remaining. Hall took a pass from Busch to score an insurance goal for Grants Farm’s victory.

Jeff Blake was named Most Valuable Player for his stellar performance in both offense and defense. Jeff Hall, who played his first tournament game at age 7 in Santa Barbara, was awarded the Skene Award for Most Valuable Player of the season, presented by Elizabeth Skene. Sugar Erskine’s mare, Shell Rock was named Best Playing Pony for the second year in a row.

Valiente took the subsidiary Western Badge trophy 14-13 over Audi.

—Gwen Rizzo
—Melanja Jones contributed to this
report.

 
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