Brennan and Gundlach Reflect on Their First East Coast Open
By Darlene Ricker
For Maureen Brennan and Annabelle Gundlach, competing for the first time in the East Coast Open (ECO) was a challenge, an eye-opener and a blast—not necessarily in that order. The patronas of opposing teams arrived in Greenwich with different agendas and experience levels, but both left with the same thing: an enhanced set of skills to apply in the 2017 Florida high-goal season, as well as a boatload of respect from the high-goal polo community.
“Maureen and Annabelle played great. They proved that they should be playing at this level,” said Kris Kampsen, a 6-goaler who played for Airstream in the ECO. This winter he will be Gundlach’s teammate in the Florida 20-goal season, along with Brandon Phillips and Mariano Aguerre.
Gundlach, who has only been playing polo two years, tested the 20-goal waters at a tournament at Grand Champions Polo Club last fall. The ECO, however, was her first foray into playing in a major high-goal tournament. She found Greenwich Polo Club “phenomenal,” describing it as “classic, old-world polo.” She described the venue as “so beautiful that you felt like you were on a movie set.”
But for Gundlach the ECO was all about Florida 2017. “Everything about me being in Greenwich has been a stepping stone to Florida. The East Coast Open was a learning experience and the perfect entrance to the 20-goal for me,” she said.
“We spent months deciding which tournaments to enter—Should we go to Santa Barbara and play the 16-goal? Should we go to Wyoming?” The decision was Greenwich because it would be the best prep school for Wellington. “The whole idea was that the type of grass in Greenwich is a little slower than the grass in Wellington, so it would be the best way to get me used to playing the 20,” said Gundlach.
It was also the first 20-goal in which she and Brandon Phillips put a team together themselves. Whereas Grand Champions helps bring players onto teams, she said, she and Phillips were on their own this time. Deciding who else to recruit was a lengthy, detailed process. “We wanted to put together a team that made sense for this particular tournament,” said Gundlach.
Nick Manifold, a 5-goal player who not only acts as an advisor to Postage Stamp but who also played for the team during the June/July Greenwich season, stepped aside for the ECO, stressing the importance of creating a team that would be more competitive. “Nick suggested we bring Salva (Ulloa) on because we thought the tournament would play as an ‘open’ rather than being handicapped,” said Gundlach. Ulloa is rated at 7 goals, as is Joao Paulo Ganon, who rounded out the team.
For Postage Stamp, a 19-goal team, “competitive” means a lot more than a game of numbers. Gundlach said the team was competitive not only because of the organization and the strengths of the players. “We were competitive because there were no egos on our team,” she said. “It also didn’t hurt that Salva’s younger brother Hilario, going to 10 goals in January, was coaching us well!”
“When you have the right mix of people, the team can gel and really enjoy each other. It’s a completely different dynamic than four guys just showing up. This sport is the classic example of why there is no ‘i’ in team. You can’t play four different ways on the field and expect to win.”
Maureen Brennan made an indelible impression in her debut appearance in the ECO, taking Goose Creek all the way to the semifinals. But it was an earlier match against the team that would eventually win the tournament that taught her the most.
“Our loss to White Birch helped me the most to get my game on,” she said. “It made it clear to me that I’d have to play as hard and as well as I could every moment of the game. Show no mercy.”
Brennan arrived in Greenwich with high-goal experience, having played as a sub in the 2010 United States Open Polo Championship for Pony Express and in filling in for Orchard Hill, Crab Orchard, Equuleus, Faraway and others in the Wellington high-goal season. “I get great opportunities in Florida,” she said.
Now the historic ECO would be added to the list. “As the date got closer and closer, it started to sink in: ‘This is the East Coast Open! This is an important tournament,’” she said.
Brennan came to the ECO at the invitation of the del Rio family. Although she hadn’t played since June, she was game. “The del Rios asked me to play because Louis Bacon couldn’t play the entire Greenwich season. I had already played with Mariano (Gonzalez), Tomas (Garcia del Rio) and Bicho (Marcos Garcia del Rio) in the past, so I thought, ‘Why not? This could be a fun team.’”
Indeed, it was. She described Gonzalez as the most outgoing of the group. “I’m overly serious, so Mariano is good for me. He’s the perfect combination of intensity with levity. He’s serious at the right moments and light at the right moments,” she said.
Moreover, she said, Gonzalez’s perspective and outlook off the field is important because “The season becomes intense for a period of time, and the team spends a lot of time together.” The two first played together in the 2006 Gold Cup in Aiken, South Carolina, and have done so ever since.
As for her other teammates, Brennan said Tomas Garcia del Rio is “a bit more reserved [than Mariano] and is extremely serious in the game. Bicho is super-quiet pre-game. We all lean toward being serious.” As a result, the vibe inside their tent tended to be quieter than that of other teams.
Brennan’s key to putting together a team: “I like teammates who try the whole game. I surround myself with people of integrity, people I respect and know I can rely on, both on and off the field.”
While the tournament itself was first and foremost, Brennan also pointed to important post-game activities. “I applaud Greenwich Polo for making such a great effort to create interaction between the players and the spectators. It’s important to promote polo and expose non-horse people to the sport. Someone may see a game for the first time and become interested. After the Sunday games at Greenwich, it was wonderful to see little girls line up to get a polo ball signed by their favourite player.”