La Karina knocked off defending champion Tonkawa to win the Emma Challenge Sunday at Aspen Valley Polo Club.

The foursome of Brian Boyd, Grant Ganzi, Juancito Bollini and Mike Azzaro defeated Tonkawa (Jeff Hildebrand, Marc Ganzi, Sapo Caset, Alex Gooding) in a thrilling 12-8 game that they led from start to finish.

It was the biggest tournament win for La Karina in its’ ten-year history as a team. It was also the third tournament victory for Ganzi, 19, and Bollini, 21, as teammates.

“By far this is the biggest,” said Boyd, enjoying one of his finest seasons after coming back from a serious wrist injury that nearly ended his playing career.

“I am more relaxed and having more fun than ever,” Boyd said. “The camaraderie among these players is amazing. Today’s game was one for the books. Playing with Juancito and Grant is a blast. They play higher than their handicaps when they play together.”

Hall of Famer Mike Azzaro, a former 10-goaler for thirteen years and winner of eight U.S. Open titles, was a unanimous choice for Most Valuable Player.

Julia, a 12-year-old chestnut mare owned and played by Jeff Hildebrand in the sixth chukker, was selected Best Playing Pony.

Azzaro brought out the best in his three teammates quarterbacking his team from the back position with his playmaking and encouraging words.

Emma Challenge finalists La Karina and Tonkawa with awards presenters Cece Armstrong and Karina Boyd.

EMMA CHALLENGE FINALISTS LA KARINA AND TONKAWA WITH AWARDS PRESENTERS CECE ARMSTRONG AND KARINA BOYD.

“He was super positive and coaching us on the field like a drill sergeant,” Boyd said. “He was really playing great, smooth as ice. It was amazing. He would wait, read the play and make it happen. Mike and Sapo think on a different level than the rest of us.”

In a wide open, fast-paced game, La Karina jumped out to a 2-0 lead early in the opening chukker with goals from Ganzi, despite 10-goaler Caset defending, and Azzaro.

“To score the first goal of the game with Sapo defending me helped to establish the mood of the game,” Ganzi said. “It was important for our team to get the confidence going early.”

The confidence continued to build with La Karina leading 2-1, 4-2 and 7-3 at the half. Tonkawa rallied in the second half behind Caset but still trailed 9-5 and 10-7 in the fourth and fifth chukkers.

La Karina seemed to have an answer for everything Tonkawa threw at them including Caset’s 120-yard goal and incredible goal by Hildebrand despite Boyd’s smothering defense.

“Jeff had the goal of the season,” Boyd said. “I was out of the saddle and in his lap literally probably breaking every polo rule. He stood up on his tip toes in his stirrups and hit it. We all started laughing it was such an amazing shot.”

Tonkawa came within two goals, 10-8, early in the sixth chukker but could get no closer with Bollini’s hook catching Caset on a breakaway; Azzaro finding Boyd open for a goal and Bollini setting up Azzaro for the final goal of the game with a minute left.

“Our plan was for Mike to control the team while Juan and I found open spaces,” Ganzi said. “They started playing much better in the second half. Sapo started firing and scoring ridiculous goals.

“Our team played really well,” Ganzi said.
“We kept the same rhythm going against a very tough team. Our mistakes were minimal compared to the positives of the game and impact on the field we were able to make together.

  Jeff Hildebrand of Tonkawa with his Best Playing Pony Julia.

JEFF HILDEBRAND OF TONKAWA WITH HIS BEST PLAYING PONY JULIA.

“We all brought each other up and reinforced each other playing well. I would say we were a little bit of an underdog, you always give the edge to the 10-goaler. Having Sapo on the team was a huge edge. We knew Sapo could turn the game around any minute, 10-goalers can do that. Mike told us he can beat us any moment and to keep playing man-to-man polo.”

Ganzi said it was “a pleasure to play with Mike. I’ve always liked playing with him. We have a good track record together. His vision on the field and perception is unbelievable. That 10-goal vision and talent never goes away.”

La Karina got balanced scoring from its foursome. Ganzi had a team-high four goals, Azzaro and Boyd each had three and Bollini added two.

For Tonkawa, Caset and Hildebrand each had four goals.

In the subsidiary round robin tournamentLos Amigos Red (Alejandra Foster, Pablo Dorignac, Lucas Lalor, Stewart Armstrong) defeated Los Amigos Blue (Gabriel Gracida, Santos Bollini, Nacho Novillo Astrada, Paul Foster), 6-4, in the final three-chukker game to clinch the title.

In the other games, Los Amigos Blue defeated Flexjet (Carlitos Gracida, Melissa Ganzi, Juan Bollini, Lauren Sherry), 6-3, and Los Amigos Red edged Flexjet, 2-1.

Argentine 9-goaler Nacho Novillo Astrada of Los Amigos Blue was named MVP.

Between the subsidiary and final, local fans were treated to Kids Foot Mallet polo with players from The Polo School. During halftime of the championship final, Allie Azzaro, the daughter of Mike and Amy Azzaro, gave a breathtaking aerial silks performance hanging from a tree.

The Emma Challenge is named after the town of Emma, Colo., located in Pitkin County on Highway 82 between Carbondale and Aspen. Emma, with an elevation of 6,608 feet, was once a sizable town in the past. The three buildings on the north side of the road are on the state historical preserve register.

The Emma Challenge is the fifth of 12 tournaments scheduled, eight grass and four arena tournaments including this week’s United States Arena Handicap featuring six teams and top players Alejandro and Nacho Novillo Astrada, Kris Kampsen, Pablo Dorignac and Mike Azzaro.

This season’s first four summer tournament winners were La Karina (Carlitos Gracida, Mariano Gracida, MVP Brian Boyd, Marc Ganzi), Independence Cup; Tiburon (Collen Clark, Lauren Sherry, Pablo Dorignac, MVP Lucas Lalor), ChukkerTV Challenge Cup; Casablanca (MVPs Mariano Gracida, Grant Ganzi, Pablo Dorignac, Juancito Bollini), Basalt Handicap and Casablanca (Santos Bollini, Grant Ganzi, Lucas Lalor, Juancito Bollini), Craig Sakin Memorial.

Aspen Valley Polo Club is the nation’s fastest growing USPA polo club. The club is enjoying increased membership and continues to grow and introduce polo throughout the valley.

In the last four years Aspen Valley Polo Club has had a positive impact in the area hosting kids polo camps, teaching lessons and hosting several charitable events at the club that have benefitted local charities including the Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation.

Polo has increased in popularity in Aspen and surrounding areas with the club’s offerings of various weekly tournaments, Gladiator Tuesdays and Asado, Kids Polo, indoor and outdoor arena polo, charitable events and The Polo School. Practice sessions are also held for teams competing in the weekend tournaments.

In August 2014, polo players and patrons Marc and Melissa Ganzi opened the Aspen Valley Polo Club to rave reviews by the community and players. Both co-own the club and its sister polo club Grand Champions in Wellington, Fla. and have played key roles in the sport’s growth and popularity.