By Ben Baugh
Team USPA has had an incredible presence in international competition this year. They kicked off the year with the FIP World Championships in Santiago, Chile, where they took the silver medal in a game that is sure to be remembered. Most recently, Team USPA represented the United States in India this November, participating in the 9th Manipur Polo International Invitational. A heartbreaking 7-6 loss in the tournament’s opening match to the host country on November 22nd did nothing to discourage the roster composed of Pedro Lara (2), Jared Sheldon (4), Josh Shelton (2), Remy du Celliee Muller (3) and fellow American player Peter Blake (3). However, it was the U.S.A.’s relentless pursuit of the ball, du Celliee Muller’s interception and Sheldon’s ability to follow through and finish the play in overtime of the tournament’s deciding game, scoring the decisive goal on a neck shot that resulted in a 5-4 victory on November 29th at the Impahl Polo Ground in Manipur, India.
“We started overtime with a knock-in,” said Jared Sheldon, who served as the team’s captain. “I just took off running with the ball and shot on goal, but missed unfortunately. They took a knock-in where Remy was able to intercept at midfield and send it back toward goal. Their no. 4 tried to meet it, and the ball hit off the cane of his mallet. I was able to get around him and shoot on goal and put it through.”
The U.S.A. demonstrated their resiliency in an absolutely brilliant performance in its November 23rd victory against Australia, winning 13-5. Teamwork and communication were among the key variables in the win that saw team captain Jared Sheldon score nine goals, with Josh Shelton and Remy du Celliee Muller adding two each in the authoritative victory.
“We came out in the 3rd chukker against them up by 2, and I got on Iandaba, who was named the fastest horse in the tournament,” said the US Captain. “She was such a great little horse thanks to her I could got out in front of them repeatedly and really was able to convert the opportunities.”
After their initial loss, the U.S.A. continued their strong play in the round robin tournament, this time with a convincing 8-3 victory against Thailand on November 24th.
“In the first half we scored eight goals, and we failed to score in the second half,” said Team USPA member Josh Shelton. “Defense won this game, in holding the Thai team to only three goals.”
However, the U.S.A. was hardly a lock for reaching the finals as the host nation remained undefeated, and their next game would be against the team that was standing in its way of obtaining their objective, and boasted a similar record. Net goals would be a critical component in determining who would reach the decisive game against India.
The U.S.A. would have their hands full against a worthy adversary as England played a gritty and determined style, with the game ending in a 5-5 tie on November 27th. But the penultimate contest’s outcome would be enough for the roster composed of Team USPA players to reach the finals against India on November 29th. But Team USPA found themselves having to rally as they were trailing at halftime against a very strong opponent.
“This was a very important game because England had the same record,” said Josh Shelton. “We knew we had them beat on net goals in the event there was a tie. England is a very good team. They played disciplined polo. Our team was having a hard time finding the goal in the first half and trailed 4-2 at halftime. (In) the second half, we came out and made better plays as a team and managed to tie the game in the 4th chukker.”
It would be a chance for redemption being that the U.S.A. had opened with a loss to India. A late rally by the host nation helped propel India to a 7-6 victory, after the U.S.A had taken a 4-3 advantage into the 4th chukker in tournament’s opening contest on November 22nd.
“The initial game against the India team was a tough fought game,” said Josh Shelton. “The score was very close, back and forth throughout.
“The environment at the Impahl Polo Grounds was extremely inviting and the enthusiastic spectators made the experience even more special and unique,” said US Captain Sheldon. It was that agreeable atmosphere, a competitive final and the eventual outcome that left an indelible impression on Sheldon and his teammates.
“We were never losing at any point (in the finals) but also we were never winning by my more than two (goals),” said Sheldon. After about one minute of play, Remy hit me with a pass to goal, and I got in front of everyone to make the neck shot to win. The crowd there was amazing. There were 6,000 people in the stands watching and cheering for both teams. It’s probably the best crowd I’ve seen at a polo match.” The local audience as well as the Manipur Polo and Riding Association were incredible hosts and treated the players with the utmost hospitality.
There were a number of challenges associated with adapting to playing in India, but the U.S.A roster composed of Team USPA players was able to make the transition and progressively improved.
“It had been an extreme adjustment,” said Sheldon. “Everything is different with these ponies. However, we were able to get the hang of it day-by-day.”
Adjustments also had to be made to cope with the travel involved, but Team USPA demonstrated their resiliency in adapting to playing half way around the globe.
“We were definitely jet lagged that first day,” said Sheldon. “But fortunately we were able to adjust without too much of a problem.”
It was extremely rewarding for Jared Sheldon, who was unable to represent the U.S.A. in the Federation of International Polo World Cup in Chile after competing in the Zone Playoffs qualifying the U.S.A. to advance to Santiago, but embraced his role as the U.S. team captain in the 9th Manipur Polo International.
Many thanks to Ed Armstrong, the hosts, the Manipur Polo and Riding Association and the countless other individuals who made this experience possible for this team. It was surely an incredible experience for the U.S.A. team to remember.
“It was an honor to represent the country and come away with the victory,” said Sheldon. “I hope to have the chance to compete in tournaments like this in the future.”
Looking toward 2016, Team USPA will be sending a Team USPA women’s team to Mumbai, Manipur and Jaipur to compete in the first ever international women’s tournament held in India, the 2016 Women’s Polo Tour. Team USPA will be represented by Julia Smith, Cristina Fernandez, Tiamo Hudspeth and Carly Persano. The tournament will take place in January and we look forward to hearing about their progress throughout the whole experience. Good luck to these players!