womenBy Arianna Delin, Sharon Robb for Grand Champions Polo Club

The future of women’s and junior women’s polo looks bright if Saturday’s tenth annual Women’s Championship Tournament (WCT) and Junior Invitational are any indication.

In front of a large crowd and worldwide Chukker TV audience, Mother Chukkers (Stephanie Preston, 2, Jessica Riemann, 3, Julia Steiner, 5, Courtney Asdourain, 6) defeated Diowave Laser System (Alison Patricelli, 1, Jennifer Williams, 3, Tiffany Busch, 7, Cecilia Cochran, 5), 6-5, Saturday to capture the 2015 WCT Final at Grand Champions Polo Club.

The two evenly-matched 12-16-goal teams battled to a 5-5 tie before Steiner converted a 30-yard penalty shot with five seconds remaining to clinch the victory.

Steiner led scoring with four goals including the game-winner and was named Most Valuable Player. Her horse, Zapata, was named Best Playing Pony.

“It was a tough game, but we went in it thinking we would win it and we did,” said Steiner, 25, a former college All-American at Virginia. “I think the WCT is great. The tournaments are well-run and fun.”

Last year Steiner and Asdourain won the medium goal title for LBL Polo and Steiner was MVP.

“You can’t say enough about Julia and Courtney,” said Preston, who came up with catchy team name. “This was a fantastic final. That’s as good as polo gets.”

Asdourain said the WCT allows her to play with friends. “That way if we win or lose, at the end of the day everybody is still happy,” she said. “I love it, it’s so much fun. The fact we have a competitive team and all get along so well helps you enjoy winning all that more.”

Added veteran player Tiffany Busch of runner-up Diowave Laser Systems: “Each year the quality of play is better. They are getting new sponsors and I love to see that. I love to see smiling faces and everyone getting along out there and having a good, clean polo match. We must have had 15 shots at goal that just went wide, it was unlucky. If we had scored those goals we would have won. Polo goes like that sometimes.”

In the 8-11 Goal Final, Code4Armour (Jennifer Williams, Melanja Jones, Cristina Fernandez, Scarlet Davenport) defeated Koncordia Group (Lisa Scott, Laura Wilson, Belinda Brody, Kimberly Von Stade), 5-3.

Jones was named MVP and Belinda Brody’s 13-year-old horse, Feather, was named Best Playing Pony. Brody was also named MVP of the 12-16 consolation finals. Texas A&M-bound Melissa Wells, one of the nation’s top players, was named MVP of the 8-11 consolation finals.

In the third annual WCT Junior Invitational, the Sapphires (Riley Ganzi, Hannah Reynolds, Mia Novillo Astrada, Luisa Hubert), coached by Sunny Hale, avenged last year’s 7-0 loss to the Diamonds (Hope Arellano,Mia Cambiaso, Olivia Merlos, Malia Bryan), coached by Gillian Johnston, with 1-0 victory.

Luisa Hubert, making her WCT debut, scored the winning goal. Astrada, 14, daughter of Argentine 10-goaler Miguel Novillo Astrada, was named MVP. Her horse, Iberia, was named Best Playing Pony.

“When we found out Sunny was our coach we were so excited,” said Hubert, 15, a seven-year-player. Both Hubert and Reynolds, from Maryland, were playing in their first WCT event. “It was awesome scoring the winning goal. We just wanted to play our best. We got out there and said ‘ok, this is fun, let’s do this.'”

Reynolds, 15, is a member of her school’s polo team and has been playing six years.

“When we heard that Mia Astrada and Mia Cambiaso were playing we were thinking ‘oh my God, what have we gotten into,'” Reynolds said. “We definitely will be back, this was very exciting.”

Hannah Reynolds of The Sapphires defends Hope Arellano of The Diamonds as she hits downfield. Photo by Rob Bowman

In the newly-added WCT Junior Invitational Entry Level game, the Emeralds defeated the Rubies.

The only women’s polo event of its kind and largest polo league in the world used women’s handicap ratings for the second consecutive year. The handicaps were pioneered by Hale, the WCT’s founder, and were implemented last year by the U.S. Polo Association, the sport’s national governing body.

Hale, the first woman in U.S. history to win the U.S. Open in 2000 with Outback, is impressed by the caliber of play among women and juniors.

WCT Junior Invitational Champion Sapphires players Luisa Hubert, Hannah Reynolds, Mia Novillo Astrada, Riley Ganzi. Photo by Rob Bowman

“The fact that we are here today ten years into it, I am extremely excited about and could not have predicted what I saw today in the upper level juniors game,” Hale said. “The quality of polo and speed those girls played at that age is something we haven’t seen before.

“Now people really see the vision. The depth of the vision I had is now becoming visible,” Hale said. “It was a great success at Grand Champions.”

Hale said Grand Champions has played an integral role in the WCT’s success.

“The fact the WCT Finals are in Wellington during the U.S. Open sets the whole stage,” Hale said. “Women are inspired to play here. Grand Champions does a fantastic job. What it does for the WCT is it brings legitimacy to the fact they put on a great show, they’ve got great fields and you are right in the center of everything.

“That’s why women’s polo is in a new place in this generation of players because it never used to be a featured event,” Hale said. “Grand Champions has taken it to that level and really gotten behind it. When I started playing women’s polo it was a big deal if you got on a main field and that was if.”

Mother Chukkers teammates Julia Steiner and Courtney Asdourain celebrate the win. Photo by Rob Bowman

Women’s polo remains the largest growing sector in polo. The WCT Series was founded in 2005 to help consolidate women’s polo and promote high quality competition and now is played throughout the world including Dubai.

“The quality of polo is high and players are motivated more because of the recognition and passion for their horses and the sport,” said WCT Commissioner Dale Smicklas, one of America’s former top players. “Now with the exposure and women’s handicap system, it’s an opportunity for women to strive to that next level.”

Grand Champions Polo Club owners Marc and Melissa Ganzi hosted the four-day event.

Grand Champions Polo Club provided this unique WCT Finals cake for players, family and friends. Photo by WCT

Top professional chef Shannon Atkins, a Johnson and Wales College of Culinary Arts alum, and his staff, Verdell Atkins-March and Patsy McClain, served a five-star buffet luncheon along with a open bar for players, family and friends, courtesy of Grand Champions.

Chef Shannon will be a celebrity chef at Thursday’s Wellington Chamber of Commerce’s 12th annual Flavors of Wellington at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, 6:30-9:30 p.m.

2015 POLO ON DEMAND

Grand Champions Polo Club, featuring five world-class fields, has a full schedule of tournaments from January to May. Let our polo experts create a turn-key experience including top pros to bring out the best in you and your team. Lessons are available.

16-GOAL TOURNAMENTS: John T. Oxley Memorial Trophy.

12-GOAL TOURNAMENT: Museum of Polo & Hall of Fame Challenge Cup

8-GOAL TOURNAMENTS: USPA President’s Cup

6-GOAL TOURNAMENTS: Las Acacias Cup

SPRING 2015 SCHEDULE

April 16-19, Grand Champions Cup; April 23-26, USPA Spring Challenge; April 30-May 3, USPA Sun Cup; May 7-10, USPA Eastern Challenge; May 14-17, Polo Gear Challenge Cup; May 21-25, The Memorial; May 24-25, USPA NYTS; May 28-31, Santa Rita Memorial.

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