Story and photos by ©United States Polo Association.
Advancing by a narrow half-goal margin into the National Youth Tournament Series (NYTS) Championship Cecil Smith Cup Final, the Eastern Region team challenged front-runner Florida for the trophy on Sunday, September 8, at New Bridge Polo & Country Club in Aiken, South Carolina. Designed with player development in mind, NYTS was created in 2013 and is the first national outdoor tournament series for youth competitors—providing opportunities to compete with and against their peers. Missing several crucial attempts at goal, Florida left the door open for Eastern to capitalize on their initial lead on handicap, allowing the green team to claim the win 6-5.
“We came up with a game plan to try to minimize what the other team does well and play disciplined defensively—which the kids did. They knew they would have to battle hard until the last chukker and I am really proud of how they played.” — Coach Nick Snow*, Eastern Region
In a game characterized by strong defense from both sides, neither team was able to add a field goal to their tally in the first half. Awarded two goals on handicap from the onset, Eastern remained in the lead by one even after a scoreless first chukker. Eager to level the scoreboard, Florida came out firing in the second but their shots on goal continued to miss the mark. Hope Arellano and Winston Painter picking up a Penalty 2 and 3 respectively for their teams, Eastern maintained the gap headed into halftime 3-2.
Both teams returning to the field prepared to implement their coaches’ strategy and advice, the game began to open up in the second half with impressive field goals. Converting his second penalty shot of the day, Benji Daniels was answered back by two goals from Eastern, the second a powerful field goal guided between the posts by Winston Painter. Entering the fourth chukker 5-3 in favor of Eastern, Florida rallied to equalize the scoreboard in their most offensive chukker yet. Taking advantage of a broken knock in, Landen Daniels brought his team within one, followed closely by Jack Whitman to tie the game for the first time 5-all. Ultimately claiming the decisive, game-winning shot, Painter came out with another explosive goal, leading the pack downfield with defenders in pursuit to end the final 6-5.
Responsible for three goals of Eastern’s total five, Winston Painter was named The Matthew Cohen Most Valuable Player. Originally from Connecticut, Painter previously competed in show jumping before making the switch to polo at eight years old. “I was really nervous going into the final,” Painter revealed. “I was really trying to stay in the back a lot because the other team has great players who can run and score the goals. I was trying to make sure that didn’t happen too often.”
“I think it was amazing to see all the kids play and rewarding to see their hard work pay off today,” Painter’s father added.
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Chaparra (Chalina x Casino), played by Winston Painter in the second half of the third chukker and owned by Gabriel Crespo. As the NYTS official apparel sponsor, U.S. Polo Assn. also supplied the Best Playing Pony blankets for both championship games.
The Horsemanship Award was presented to Florida’s Hope Arellano and the Sportsmanship Award was given to the Central Region’s Regan Smith from Springfield Polo Club in Provincial Park, Manitoba, Canada.
Although all four Eastern players were first-time participants in the NYTS Championship, Aiden Meeker had the benefit of familiarity playing in his hometown. “It was so much fun to play here in Aiken,” Meeker said. “There’s an advantage in knowing the fields, how they play and using your own horses. The NYTS program is so much fun and such a great way to meet so many new people and have the opportunity to play around North America.”
WHITE SEAL THEIR VICTORY IN NYTS GIRLS CHAMPIONSHIP
Preceding the NYTS Championship Cecil Smith Cup Final was the second game of the newly minted NYTS Girls Championship (previously the Girls All-Star Challenge), featuring eight of youth polo’s best up-and-coming females from across the country. Qualifying by being selected as an All-Star at a National Youth Tournament Series Qualifier, these young women were invited to play in an all-girls championship tournament, a tradition established in 2018. Defeating Black by two-and-a-half goals in their first matchup on Friday, September 6, White needed only one more win to claim the championship, determined by best record over the course of the two games. Eliminating the need for a penalty shootout, White’s half goal on handicap proved to be the difference, earning them the title in the final match 4.5-4.
“I think our team had really good communication and we didn’t crack under pressure. We were good at keeping our cool and staying collected even when the score was getting close.” – Anna Alworth, Girls White Team
Although both teams gave a considerable effort in the first chukker, the goals would come down to accuracy from the penalty line. Converting a Penalty 2 apiece to end the first, White held onto a slight lead 1.5-1. Striking in the second, Hope Kerley popped a beautiful goal between the posts on bay gelding Tobacco. Mirroring the first chukker, two additional Penalty 2 conversions were added to end the half 3.5-2 in favor of White.
Opening up the fourth chukker, Summer Kneece attempted a Penalty 4 which teammate Athena Malin was able to launch to goal, her first of the game. Deadly from the penalty line, Grant countered yet again this time with a Penalty 3 to maintain the gap headed into the final chukker 4.5-3. As the minutes wound down, Black knew they had to mobilize quickly in order to have a chance at the championship. Preventing White for scoring another goal, Black was able to secure a final Penalty 2 conversion off the mallet of Kneece, but it was not enough to overtake the lead. Winning both games, White earned their title with a final score of 4.5-4.
Playing in her first NYTS Championship last year, Anna Alworth commented on the experience of meeting new people through the program. “I came in last year not knowing anyone being from Minnesota,” Alworth shared. “I made some friends on my team and across all the teams and then coming back and knowing people this time, it was really nice to see familiar faces. Overall, I had a great experience both times and I’m super happy to make these connections.”
Scoring three of Black’s four goals, Summer Kneece was named Most Valuable Player.
Best Playing Pony honors were awarded to Sydney, a 9-year-old chestnut Argentine mare owned and played by Sophie Grant in the first half of the third chukker.
The Horsemanship Award was presented to Lila Bennett and the Sportsmanship Award was awarded to Hope Kerley.
Aging out of the NYTS program, Hope Kerley was thrilled to end her experience with a win. “The NYTS experience is beyond incredible because they take such good care of us and it’s such an honor to be here,” Kerley said. “Jimmy Wright* was an amazing coach. He never let us get down and always just pushed through. This tournament is something I’ll always remember. Being here in Aiken is a great way to end my NYTS career and I will forever cherish the memories.”
*Jimmy Wright is a member of Team USPA. Nick Snow is a Team USPA alumnus. Team USPA is a USPA program designed to enhance and grow the sport of polo in the United States by identifying young, talented American players and providing mentored training and playing opportunities leading to a pool of higher rated amateur and pro players and the resultant giveback to the sport of polo.